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Moving Forward

Bruce McPheron

An Interview with Dean Bruce McPheron by Lori Shontz

In early July, Lori Shontz, senior editor at The Penn Stater, interviewed Bruce McPheron, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences. Excerpts from from that interview were published in the September/October issue. As dean of the College of Ag Sciences, McPheron has arguably one of the toughest jobs at Penn State. While the entire University is coping with a 19.6 percent cut in its appropriation from the state, Ag Sciences has been hit especially hard because its Cooperative Extension service and Ag Experiment Station make the college far more dependent on state funding than the other colleges are. Below is the entire interview, edited for length and clarity.

You knew that cuts were coming, but did the magnitude surprise you?
I’ve been dean for two years—I started July 1, 2009—and even prior to that, we had started preparing for what we could see coming down the road. We were just at the front end of the federal stimulus funds that were provided for higher education, and so we began a thoughtful process of preparing for the loss of those stimulus funds as well as the continued changes in cost of living. The state pension system has been in trouble, too, so we were working hard to budget for those sorts of things as well. When we reached June 30, 2011—two years later—we had actually saved about $8 million.
     We had a variety of different approaches we took. Knowing that every budgetary unit in the college would be hit, we had an across-the-board recycle of about 5 percent of our funds. We also were extremely careful in refilling positions, looking for other sorts of solutions.

How big a loss were the stimulus funds for Ag Sciences?
They helped us with the same proportion as they did across the University. It was about 6 percent of the budget. So in July 2009, the state actually backed out of 6 percent of their commitment to Penn State lines—plural—and substituted the federal funds. So we stayed at a flat budget level relative to what we had in 2008–09. In 2009–10 and 2010–11, we had the same amount of money—it was just offset by federal funds. So when we reached 2011, we were preparing for the disappearance of those funds. We never assumed they were permanent funds. You always would love to see them stick around, but that was not our assumption, and that was not our planning process.

Did you think there was any chance of having those funds restored by the state?
I have a lot of empathy for our elected officials. They are working in a tough environment right now where we don’t have enough money to go around. You can’t ask them to spend money that isn’t there. Like I said, I simply assumed that those funds would not have been part of the picture. It would have been a huge windfall if for some reason they had been.
    The upshot of this was that, having saved $8 million, we were not quite to our goal of $10.5 million over those two years. It’s the stimulus funds; it’s the increased cost of doing business. Because for our ag research and extension lines, we have to bear all of the costs of benefits. Not all of it comes from student tuition. We’re very successful in getting grants and contracts from outside funders—the U.S. government, foundations, the private sector—but those monies don’t offset the salary money. They add to the programs that we’re able to do.
    Grant money is coming in because of the initial investment. We put that money into people who can go out and compete. I like to describe the grants that we get, especially at the federal level, as bringing someone else’s tax money into Pennsylvania to solve Pennsylvania’s problems. We’re getting the citizens of Massachusetts or Montana to pay for the work that we’re doing here in Pennsylvania because we have excellent faculty who can write these proposals that win the day.
    So, facing an additional shortfall in our own budget planning, we asked for permission to conduct an early retirement program. The pool of eligible faculty, staff, and county educators was just over 120. Just over 80 folks accepted it. Through the program, we actually met our budget target, and we actually went a little farther. That was all part of this planning. Well, when we went from the potential of a 10 percent reduction for the ag research and extension lines to a final outcome of 19 percent, it actually swung us back the other way.
    So we’re at a point where, now, despite having saved all of this money—and we were somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million in cuts to our permanent budget over the last two years—at the end of the day, we actually are around $5 million short. And so we need to continue to find ways to reduce our expenses to meet that budget target.

The early retirements must be bittersweet.
They are. These are all faces that I know. I’ve been here 23 years [McPheron is a long-time member of the faculty in entomology], and I know these people, and we’re losing a lot of really important institutional knowledge, a lot of creativity, a lot of problem solving, and a lot of friends. What we have to do now is determine which of the things we’re losing are absolutely essential duties that we have to find some way to backfill, and that runs smack into this continuing need to cut costs. So it’s created a little bit of a conundrum for us.

Did you run into any situations in which there was a department you needed to beef up or wanted to stay the same, and you ended up with a lot of early retirements there?
Our wildlife and fisheries program is an example of a program where it’s very popular with students, and we’ve done a lot of interesting research over the years. It’s not only solid research, but there are practical applications of that research. Several of those faculty have elected for the early retirement, so now we’re going to have to really scramble to make sure we serve the needs of the students first and foremost.

Will you need additional layoffs?
Most of our money is in people, and to accomplish an additional $5 million debt reduction, there’s really not any way it can be done without having to let people go. The answer is yes. The target is basically the equivalent of about 75 additional positions. We’ll do everything we can to find other sorts of possibilities. We’re looking at our farms, our facilities, our county operations, our academic units, our support services. We’re really turning over every rock to try to determine where we might be able to save funds.

Ag was hit harder than some other areas of the budget. Why?
The rest of the University runs on a mixture of tuition and state appropriations. We have some of that fund, which supports our resident instruction program, but the bulk of our college funding comes from a blending of state appropriation, through ag research and extension; federal appropriation, through ag research and extension; and county appropriation, through extension. So the bulk of our funding portfolio is actually not buffered by tuition.
    This is not so different from all of the other ag programs across the nation—we all have similar sorts of models. It stems largely from the original creation of the land-grant university. The cooperative funding of agriculture is something that became rooted early on. Actually, President Atherton was involved in the creation of the agricultural experiment stations in 1887. We were among the first states to have cooperative extension. We actually had extension in 1910, before it became an official government program in 1914. So Penn State has always been at the forefront, for better or for worse. These programs have just relied on funding that comes from sources outside the tuition stream.

Can you explain a little about the Ag Futures program, which seems to be a big part of your response to the cuts?
Strategic planning is something that we’ve embraced, particularly over the past decade, and we use our strategic plan. But a strategic plan is a three- to five-year window you’re looking at. So the idea behind Ag Futures was to say, “What do we need to be doing over the next 30-year period?” If we were to hire a new faculty member, a new assistant professor, and they’re looking at a 30-year career with us, what kind of issues are they going to face? What will the opportunities be? If we’re thinking from the perspective of our students, who are going to graduate and have a 30-year career, what skill sets do they need to take with them, to prepare them to change and adapt to the opportunities that arise in the workplace? So that was the impetus for the temporal frame: Look at a longer view and see what the big issues were. I think we largely accomplished it. You never know exactly how a venture like that will turn out. You always look back and say, “What did I learn?” and we learned a lot of things. We identified some strategic areas that we feel we have to do a better job of taking ownership of.

What are some of the examples?
We really want to work diligently on areas of the convergence of food, diet, and health. And it will require partnership with other colleges. We’ll look for ways that we can put the “food” aspect together with the “implications of eating” aspect. Sustainability is a campus-wide emphasis area now, and we think it touches everything we do about production of food, protection of the environment.
    Protecting crops and livestock from disease is something we’ve done for a century or more. There’s a University initiative in infectious disease. Really looking at the disease process, both for protecting the food system and for protecting human health, is critical. If you think about food safety issues, a lot of the problems that actually cause us difficulty as consumers start way back in the food chain. So, there’s a clear need to look at this as a systems approach, something that’s holistic.
    When you look at sustainability, the energy and water initiatives in our strategic plan fit beautifully into those areas. I’ve often said it’s quite likely that water is the next generation’s oil, and I think we really need to be proactive in looking at our water system. Right now, the Chesapeake Bay is driving much of Pennsylvania agriculture. People are waiting to see what kind of rules and regulations they have to live with. We’re trying to work to develop best practices that they can put into their systems. What happens in the Chesapeake is likely to be seen as a model for watersheds across the nation. So it’s important that we are engaged with this.
    But we also need to look all the way upstream at water and look at some of the other elements. This is one of the issues around the Marcellus [shale] that we’re engaged in. Early on, the questions that we were addressing around the Marcellus were really around the land rush, if you will, when leasing was taking place. And now that extraction is under way and transportation of that gas is under way, the questions have turned to some of the environmental issues. So we’re working very hard to try to identify areas of opportunity there. We need to be the honest broker. We need to bring the sciences to society. I think that’s something that, as a land-grant university, we’re very good at. I know the college is good at it. But I think the University is really good at it, and we take our land-grant mission of access to information very seriously.

You’re crunching numbers, but you are also running a college with people who must be stressed and worried. How do you do that?
I provide a monthly webinar to the college. I’ve always said that information is powerful, but it’s much more powerful if you share it. And so I use that as a tool to try to really lay out the current circumstances and also to put it in the context of where we’re headed. I can’t always answer the specific questions as quickly as a lot of our folks would like them to be answered. One of the things we’ve said right up front is that the students come first. First and foremost, we are an educational institution. With all of this change, whether it’s budgetary driven or whether it’s vision driven, we have to think about the implications for our student population. That’s really critical.

Your enrollment’s been increasing, right?
Over the past five years, we’ve increased 42 percent at the undergraduate level. It’s a trend that we’re seeing across the nation. People are interested in their food. They’re interested in the environmental consequences of producing their food. They’re interested in the policy issues, the whole discussion around bioenergy and using food crops for energy, and that has led to a really healthy debate in the media about what the implications are. Young people who want to have a role in that come to us for our programs. They are interested in the broad portfolio of what they can learn here.

So you have more students and issues that are becoming more prominent, but the funding drops.
Well, it is a challenge. What it’s going to force us to do is focus on fewer issues, I think, and we’re in the process of defining those things. Over the next 30 years, the increase in world population and increased standard of living is going to lead to a demand for a near doubling of our available food. Now that’s not all production; it may be a combination of production and distribution. But more food is going to be necessary, and it’s going to be accomplished with less land, less water, and less energy. If that doesn’t throw down the gauntlet, I don’t know what does.
    The scope of the opportunities to address these challenges is really tempting. What we’re going to have to do because of budgetary imperatives is be very careful not to spread ourselves too thin. It’s a very delicate dance. We have to address the issues that are critical to Pennsylvania agriculture in a national and global context, but we also have the responsibility to look up to the horizon and see what’s coming. So we can’t focus solely on today. Our job is to prepare for tomorrow while helping you succeed today. As you see a reduction in resources, it becomes more and more challenging to be completely effective in that regard.

And you wanted to be the dean?
Yeah, I did. I’ve had colleagues from around campus, ever since early on when we started down this whole budget road, come up and say, “Oh, you’ve got the worst job on campus.” And I say to them, “Don’t confuse a bad job and a hard job.” This is a great job. I can wake up in the morning and I can know that what my faculty and staff are doing matters to every person on earth. So as long as I can get up in the morning and know that we have that kind of impact on society, this is a good job. It’s just the hardest job I’ve ever had.

Photo: Steve Williams