An Unfolding Future

Stylized typeA new year begins and the college faces a sea of change. What’s over the horizon is hard to predict.

What we do know is that the college, not unlike other organizations, is facing serious budget challenges, the magnitude of which will not be fully known until the Commonwealth passes its fiscal year 2011/12 budget.

At the same time, the University is engaged in significant program reviews across all campuses. Recommendations as a result of those reviews will also touch the college. Together, these factors make it clear the college will have to change. Planning to address that change is underway.

Last August, Dean McPheron put into place a process to help build the college of the future. Known as the Ag Futures process, it is challenging assumptions about “what we do” and “how we do it” and how to apply scarce resources to achieve the college’s vision. Faculty, administrators, and leaders from business and industry are working together to help inform decisions that will be made for the college today and tomorrow.

The dean spoke to college staff late last semester about these challenges and acknowledged the uncertainty and fear associated with them. How all of this will affect people, programs, and day-to-day operations remains unknown until input from the Ag Futures teams and the University-level reviews are complete. The dean reminded the group of the importance of what we contribute to society.

Daunting food-related challenges lie ahead for our country and the world that we are uniquely positioned to tackle. In the next 30 years, the rise in global population will require a doubling in the amount of food we produce. And we’ll have to do it with less water, less land, and less energy. “We don’t know how to do it,” says McPheron. “No one does. But we’ll figure it out.” Finding answers to short-term challenges today will fuel the solutions to bigger challenges tomorrow.

Despite economic uncertainties, there are bright spots. In spite of huge unemployment, demand for ag science graduates remains high. A USDA report notes that between 2010 and 2015, the U.S. economy will generate an estimated 54,400 annual openings in agricultural, food, and renewable natural resources fields. Individuals with degrees in food, renewable energy, and environmental specialties will be in demand.

Students are coming to our college in growing numbers. Since last year, enrollment has grown 10.2 percent, and over the past five years, enrollments have increased nearly 42 percent—a reflection of the importance of our work.

Serious issues are being confronted in the college. Researchers are working to unravel mysteries in the lab while administrators stay late to figure out how to keep the lights on amid a state and national economic crisis. We need to craft our own future, one that embraces the unprecedented opportunities to bring science to bear on the food system of the future. There lies our collective future.

Each of us in the Penn State Ag Science community can play a role in the success of the college. Next time you have the chance, take a minute to tell someone about the role we play in assuring a safe and plentiful supply of food today and tomorrow, the work done to advance human and animal health, and much more.

The college has an important role as the future unfolds.

Steve Williams