November 16, 2011

Observations from the Road…….

Over the past several weeks I have been on the road quite a bit.  I learned a long time ago that while road time can be challenging, especially in today’s world of air travel, it is essential to advancing our efforts, especially today where the world around us is changing so fast.

The first one of these recent trips involved the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis.  This was mostly a personal trip as our daughter Kelli was there to be one of the talent performers during the convention.  Kelli has always loved to sing and to be on-stage since she could barely walk.  I also have been a life-long vocalist and cannot tell you how much of a blessing it has been to have her grow up with us singing together – even as she has far out-distanced her old Dad.  She and a guitarist friend, Dillon McCroden, were selected through national auditions to be one of the featured acts – they performed in various venues during the week, including being the stage entertainment for two nights of rodeo performance with 8,500 people in the audience each evening.  It was great fun for Jane and me to watch them perform, and to have  our friends Greg and Teresa Ibach join us on the last evening’s performance.

For an old state FFA officer (Virginia 1978-79) who fondly remembers the impact of FFA – when it was still cool to call it Future Farmers of America – it is amazing to me to see how much the organization and the “look and feel” of the convention has changed in the last 30 years.  I had the opportunity to attend five national conventions as an FFA member in downtown Kansas City over the period of years from 1975 to 1981.  While each of them was a phenomenal experience, this was before the razzle and dazzle and huge crowds of today’s setting in Indianapolis.   I had been at a couple of conventions over the past decade with our older sons and it struck me then, and even more so this year, that  the “entertainment and consumer” culture has had quite an impact on how the convention is now staged.   I had to pause and wonder if the simple message of hard work, leadership skills development, and really earning the right to be there might have escaped just a bit since “the good old days,” in favor of huge attendance and being entertained and spending time shopping and filling up suitcases to carry home with purchases.  The bottom line is that one could not leave that event without realizing that today’s young people are inherently wired differently than we were – and it really gives me pause to wonder if we have fully adapted to that fact in our academic enterprise and our approaches to education in today’s culture.  Lots to ponder there.

I went directly from Indianapolis to a board meeting in Washington,DC, followed by several visits at USDA and on the Hill.  There is no doubt that the climate in Washington is currently paralyzed in ways that are of great concern.  With the debt crisis looming overhead with no clear path for resolution, out- of-control spending on health care, increased calls for reining in military spending, growing concern over the reach of federal regulation, and escalating concern over accumulation of student debt, all within the current economic crisis and a coming election year, Washington is somewhat in chaos.  When I left DC, I was convinced that we need to be positioned to rely less on base federal funding for agricultural research, extension, and development even though all of the global indicators say we should be substantially raising our level of investment in this arena to meet the needs of the next 25 years and beyond.

This past weekend I was in Chicago for a scientific society planning team meeting and then headed to the annual meeting of APLU (Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities) in San Francisco.  This trip was on the heels of what many have called one of the darkest weeks in higher education history in the U.S. as the unbelievable events at Penn State unfolded before our eyes.  While we are likely not to know the full context and details of this story for some time to come, it has been very difficult to watch and to digest both in terms of the horrific impact on the victims as well as the deep pain it has caused our colleagues in the Penn State family.  It was wonderful to see that while the football game played in “Happy Valley” on November 12th could have been difficult, it instead revealed the best of the human spirit, as Nebraskans opened their hearts to the Penn State community to help them begin the process of healing.  I managed to find a live web-stream of the game and was watching it out of the corner of my eye in our board meeting – and I was glad I did as it was a powerful statement for both universities.  As I have heard several people comment, it must have been destined that it was Nebraska on the schedule for this day and I am so proud of our University and its people for opening their hearts in the way that we all saw in that stadium and surrounding the game.  My guess is that it will forge an ongoing special bond between our Universities, something not to be taken lightly.

The APLU meeting reinforced for me that we are so very fortunate at this point in our history at Nebraska.  We are in the very small minority of public land-grant universities where our funding base is stable and growing, where we are expanding our programs without huge increases in cost to our students, and where there is visible and palpable momentum in how we are moving upward and outward in our programs and their impacts.  And it has certainly been noticed, as I was asked repeatedly, “how in the world is Nebraska doing it?”  The simple answer is by focusing on key priorities to leverage our strengths, expanding our relationship with the private sector and strategic partners domestically and globally, enjoying a relatively robust state economy and strong support from the citizens of our state, tremendous demonstrated philanthropy from our supporters, and having the desire to be forward thinking.

And to show just how unpredictable Washington, DC is – we learned while at APLU that the 2012 fiscal year budget for USDA was in fact going to be largely intact at 2011 funding levels.  We were fully braced for substantial cuts (10% or more) in Smith-Lever, Hatch, and AFRI competitive grants funding lines.  In the end, the funding levels appear to be maintained in the FY 2012 appropriation – an almost unbelievable result in the current budget climate.  However, given the serious issues mentioned earlier, we will continue to plan for expected reductions in the out years ahead in 2013 and beyond.  While we hope that this will not come to pass, there is strong reason to expect it is likely.  In the meantime, we are building on new and exciting opportunities that are broadening our funding support in unprecedented ways.

Lastly, November 10th was a great day in  IANR that we will all remember for a long time to come.  First, our very own Stephen Baenziger delivered what I think will come to be a memorable Heuermann Lecture, only the second in this new series.  In it he so eloquently described the challenges that lie ahead for us in food and natural resource security and why what we are all about in our research, education, and outreach is at the center of the world’s single greatest global challenge.  I will forever remember his words and pictures as he described with passion the day he was holding the germplasm for one of the now key wheat cultivar lines which  cover 65% of Nebraska’s wheat acreage, developed in our wheat breeding program.  If you were not able to attend or listen in via live web-stream, I would encourage you to go online to watch the Lecture at www.heuermannlectures.unl.edu, I know you will be moved as we all were in the audience last Thursday.  Following the Heuermann Lecture, the University of Nebraska Foundation hosted a celebration event with our partners from Bayer CropScience and the Nebraska Wheat Growers and Nebraska Wheat Board to formally honor Dr. Baenziger with the Nebraska Wheat Growers Presidential Chair medallion.  It was a wonderful evening that honored Stephen and his whole team for their continued impact and accomplishments, our long-standing relationship with the Nebraska wheat industry, and the unprecedented strategic partnership with Bayer.  It was truly a day to remember for decades to come.

These are exciting times as we are now working on several additional new strategic partnerships — so keep your eyes and ears open as we expect to roll out several more in 2012.

Next time…..on Friday, November 18th I have the privilege of being able to attend the dedication of a suite of new facilities that have permanently changed the face and footprint of the campus at our Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture (NCTA) at Curtis.  There has been a long history and tremendous efforts on the part of a lot of folks to reach this momentous event.  I am really looking forward to participating and celebrating with the NCTA family on Friday and will give you a snapshot of the day in the next blog posting.

Until then – thanks for all you do every day to make a difference in the lives of our students and many stakeholders.

Ronnie D.

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