Why is the College of Ag Sciences so great at Penn State?

img-1807.jpgNational and International Scholastic rankings of universities and colleges are even more difficult and controversial than college football rankings. One ranking agency recently sent out preliminary results to a limited audience and at least twice asked them not to release the ranking before they could complete additional analysis.

Even with that level of imprecision and uncertainty, agricultural research and education (with related disciplines) at Penn State routinely ranks in the top dozen or so programs in the world calculated by various measures including reputation among students, faculty members, and employers; publications in professional journals and citations of those papers; and competitive grant support.

This much I knew before I moved to Penn State from the University of Melbourne, both of which are routinely ranked in the top 50 universities in the world. Over the last few months, though, I’ve learned a lot more about why the College of Agricultural Sciences is so highly regarded nationally and internationally.

There have been some surprises.

It was no surprise to me that the college has so many great researchers, teachers, mentors, extension educators, and students. I won’t even try to list the examples of recognition our staff and students have received because every day there are more and more outstanding achievements and there’s just no equitable way to begin. A quick look at this issue of the magazine or others will make you aware of the achievements of the people who make up our college.

Our colleagues publish in the most famous and prestigious journals, are honored by their scientific and professional societies and Penn State, and are elected by their peers to senior offices and leadership positions. Students, clubs, and teams routinely collect awards and recognition at national meetings for both their research and innovation.

One of my greatest surprises has been the level of financial and moral support we receive from our alumni and friends. Across the state we have support with the Ag Council—just one notable example. I’ve worked at five other land-grant universities in the United States, and in agriculture at two universities in Australia, and I’ve never seen such allegiance and enthusiasm for a college of agriculture, including allocation of some $2.4 million in scholarships in a single year.

However, as is so often the case, great treasures are often underappreciated close to home. In particular, the practical applications of our research and knowledge have been huge in Pennsylvania and across the United States, but too often are not recognized or publicized beyond our alumni and supporters.

The late Bruce Scholnick, who was then president of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association headquartered near Washington, D.C., said, “This highly regarded 
[Penn State] research study clearly contributed to the European Union decision to further explore and ultimately modify their [regulatory] position. Savings to my industry and the customers they service is measured in billions of dollars.”

For many, if not most, Pennsylvanians, the most personal contact with Penn State will be through Penn State Extension staff working in every county, running programs including agricultural production, food safety and nutrition for consumers, and youth programs including 4-H. However, I think because of the diversity of the work, few people have a broad understanding of extension’s tremendous contributions.

Just one example of extension quickly adapting to change is related to natural gas drilling. Whatever you think about the gas industry, it’s important to make sure that landowners are properly compensated for the gas on their land. When companies first started looking to secure leases in 2000, extension developed gas-leasing education workshops to help landowners analyze, negotiate, and understand leases and market value. By 2008, more than 12,000 people attended these workshops and signed gas leases worth more than $100 million, typically at much higher rates than initially offered by the gas companies.

Despite successes such as these, government funding for our college has suffered over the last three years. Addressing this situation is a critical challenge to making the College of Agricultural Sciences even greater. A start is making sure that key decision makers know what we do and the impact of our research and extension. I look forward to your help in telling our stories of accomplishment and service.

~Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences