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Facing the Unthinkable Together

With our college's state appropriation zeroed out, the recent budget impasse forced the college to face the unthinkable--the elimination of our extension and agricultural research programs along with the loss of approximately 1,100 positions.

Richard Roush, Dean, College of Agricultural SciencesWe lived under this cloud of uncertainty for months.

Constant visits to Harrisburg provided little hope and revealed no end in sight. The University, facing its own deficit of $225 million due to the impasse, was not able to carry us forever, and, after eight months, time was running out.

All the while, the college suffered significant damage. We halted the hiring process for 28 positions that were aimed at addressing critical priorities for Pennsylvania. We became prime hunting ground for other institutions to recruit talented staff. Morale was at an all-time low, and our staff, students, clients, and volunteers questioned the future of our organization.

Understanding that this was not just about our college, this was about you, our stakeholders, we reached out and asked for your help. You are the beneficiaries of our programs and the proof of our impact and significance. Without you we have no relevance. As I have noted before, what has astounded me most since becoming dean is the incredible dedication that you have for our college, and your willingness to engage as partners. And engage you did!

Together, we worked to educate the governor, legislators, and the public about the unique partnership of federal, state, and county governments with their land-grant institution--Penn State. We worked to help all understand the importance of agriculture and the complexity of our food system, as well as the importance of research and extension and what was at risk if those endeavors disappeared.

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau engaged early on in a big way, and we are extremely grateful for their significant commitment of time, credibility, and energy. PennAg Industries Association also provided critical support in ensuring that funding was included in the budget for the college and other agencies to help mitigate the threat of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the state.

Our advocates, particularly 4-H members and volunteers, wrote letters to the editor and took to social media. An online petition to restore funding approached 15,000 signatures, while thousands of letters, phone calls, emails, and Tweets were sent to elected officials.

The result was media coverage the likes of which this college--and Pennsylvania agriculture--has never seen before. Coverage we could never afford through advertising, marketing and other campaigns Support for our programs was voiced by editorial boards of major television news stations and newspapers across Pennsylvania, from Pittsburgh to Erie to Scranton to Philadelphia. This media coverage reminded Pennsylvanians of, among many other things, where their food comes from and why agriculture matters; it reminded them of the role of 4-H in creating leadership and science literacy among our youth; and it made them aware of what could happen if funding was not restored--and soon. I encourage you to view the pages of links to these stories.

On March 9, hundreds of 4-H members and volunteers, master gardeners, industry representatives, members of the Pennsylvania Grange, members of the State Horticultural Association of Pennsylvania, county commissioners, and others packed the capitol rotunda in Harrisburg, attended the agriculture appropriation hearing, and respectfully made their voices heard. They could not be ignored, and there was an undeniable change in the atmosphere in that building that day.

The college's "Capitol Day" the next week, held in conjunction with a joint House/Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee hearing on agriculture funding, had record attendance. Two days later the legislature sent a supplemental budget bill to Governor Wolf.

Through it all, we had incredible backing from the University's leaders, who supported us both publicly and behind the scenes. They took a significant risk by carrying our debt, knowing they could not use endowments or tuition to recoup any losses. The expenditure exceeded $32 million by March 23, when most of the appropriations were finally released as the governor announced he would not veto the bill. With that announcement a huge weight was lifted from the University and our college.

Much was learned from this process, and one thing is clear: Pennsylvania agriculture is alive and well and enjoys tremendous support across the Commonwealth, including in Harrisburg. Ultimately, it was agriculture that played a key role in a budget resolution that, even if for just one year, will give peace of mind to thousands of Pennsylvanians.

I speak for all in our college when I sincerely say, "Thank You!" Thank you for showing up! And please take the time to thank those that you reached out to for their support. They listened and got the job done.

I want to also thank the governor and the legislature for their support. We realize there are serious fiscal challenges facing Pennsylvania, and solutions will not come without a price. I feel confident in saying that agriculture, our college, and our stakeholders want to be part of the solution as we continue to serve as drivers of economic and community development throughout the Commonwealth.

Together we will continue to accomplish great things.

--Rick Roush, Dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences