CANR leadership wraps up state tour

A year ago, Dean Fred Poston was just getting to know his leadership team at the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR). A year ago, the idea of traveling the state to listen was just an idea.

CANR leadership during a session of What's Now? What's Next? in Fremont, Mich. this fall

A year ago, Dean Fred Poston was just getting to know his leadership team at the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR).  A year ago, the idea of traveling the state to listen was just an idea.


Now Poston and the CANR leadership team have completed a series of open forum-style meetings around the state. They’ve hosted 14 meetings, spoken with nearly 500 people, both off and on campus, and traveled more than 1,400 miles to complete the mission. Poston served as CANR dean from 1991 to 1998 and felt a strong calling to return to the position in early 2013.


He and the CANR administrative team kicked off the meetings dubbed, “What’s Now, What’s Next?” in July and wrapped them up in December. Dean Poston was joined by Doug Buhler, director of MSU AgBioResearch and CANR senior associate dean of research, Tom Coon, director of MSU Extension, and Kelly Millenbah, CANR associate dean and director of academic and student affairs.


The group traveled through the state fielding questions and listening to input from the agricultural and natural resources communities. Poston had participated in similar engagements while associate dean at Washington State University and thought the CANR was in need of something to help improve communications with its stakeholders.


“By sitting and answering any and all comers, it has helped people better understand that we are committed to their endeavors,” Poston said. “We always stood around afterward and talked to individuals after the meeting. Sometimes those one-on-one interactions are just as important.”


One of the most significant findings that the group made – to no surprise of Poston – was that there are great expectations.


“By and large, we found out that people still expect something from us,” Poston said. “We are their land grant university. And, what we were able to tell them is that our commitment to them remains strong.”


The foursome traveled together and made scheduled stops in some of the prime agricultural regions of the state. Poston said he and the team were able to debrief between stops and talk about necessary follow-up.


“We were able to immediately address some of the issues,” Poston said. “Mostly rumors and misconceptions really, for instance, is MSU moving away from its land-grant mission in supporting agriculture in the ag industry? Or, why are enrollment trends down in the CANR? Those who attended now know that nothing could be further from the truth on both counts.”


As he made introductory comments at each of the 14 sessions, Poston explained that having come through a tough time of budget reductions, restructuring and leadership changes, it was important for the college leaders to reconnect with people across the state who care about the role of the CANR in Michigan’s future.  All in all, Poston said the meetings– have been positive.

Millenbah agreed.


“The sessions were very informative,” she said. “They reminded me about how important it is to connect with people off campus, that’s so critical because we build programs together – we don’t just come up with a program on campus and hope it will work. We work with stakeholders, faculty, employers and students.”


Millenbah said one of the most consistent topics was workforce development and how to get young people interested in agriculture, agribusiness professions and how the CANR supports agriscience programs throughout the state.

“People who attended learned that we are actively seeking additional students with non-ag backgrounds with interests and aptitudes including the sciences, math, engineering, communication and public policy,” said Millenbah.  “Agriculture and natural resources industries have good jobs to fill right know.  It’s a great place to apply your interests in these areas and start a career.

“We also have had an opportunity to talk to people about the exciting work we’re doing in curriculum revision,” she said. “Those revisions have a direct impact on recruiting students into these majors where jobs are available.”

The open discussions have given the CANR leaders an opportunity to explain past decisions. Perhaps more importantly, they have also been a chance to listen.      


Coon said that the visits helped set MSU Extension and the CANR apart.


“The most striking message from these sessions, for me, was the simple fact that they happened,” Coon said. “In MSU Extension, we’re accustomed to the idea that university leaders should be engaged with the public and seek out public thoughts on our mission and how we carry out our mission.  And in the CANR, that’s a common understanding as well. 


“Yet at each event, participants consistently voiced their gratitude that we cared enough about what they thought to ask them to meet with us and to share their thoughts, frustrations, and appreciation for the work of MSU and the CANR.  When you hear people express gratitude for showing them respect, it’s clear that they haven’t always felt that respect from us. It also tells me that they acknowledge that this isn’t something that they expect to experience from other institutions of higher education in the state.”


The experience, Poston said, reminded him about why he started this work.


“We renewed relationships with the people of the state – that can get lost in the day-to-day work that we do.  We received a lot of very positive feedback about these meetings, and I would strongly recommend that we do this once every few years,” he said. “For me, this experience was rejuvenating. It helped me shift from the campus view to a world and state view. I found it invigorating and an opportunity to remember why I started this work. Personally, I draw a lot of strength from these interactions.”


Buhler agrees that the meetings provided a valuable forum for interaction with key constituents.


“With more than a dozen research facilities across Michigan, it’s extremely important for us to get out face-to-face and hear from growers and producers about the future of the College and ways we can continue to meet their research needs,” he said. “Through the ‘What’s Now? What’s Next’ meetings, we were able to get a pulse on some of the key issues and heard valuable feedback that will help strengthen our network of researchers and research facilities.”    


Moving forward, Poston and his colleagues said that the sessions bolstered their sense that the CANR, MSU Extension and ABR are moving in the right direction. The over-arching goal of bringing cutting-edge research to the classroom and beyond still rings true.


“Across the board, what the college really has to offer is creativity through teaching, definitely through research and in its Extension programs,” Poston said. “The approach has really been the same since the 1800s, but of course, the topics change as people’s needs change. Technology has added a lot to the delivery of it, but fundamentally we’re about educating people in both formal education (via the CANR) and Extension, and generating the ‘new’ out of creativity from the research. Without it, the country is in desperate trouble.”

Coon is pulling other lessons from the “What’s Now? What’s Next?” experience:

“We must continue to engage with the people we serve, asking for their thoughts on needs and priorities, and sharing with them how we’ve succeeded and how we may have fallen short in our expectations,” he said. “One way that we will show respect to the people we serve is by asking them to celebrate the Centennial of the Smith-Lever Act by sharing their stories with us, stories that tell of their lives, challenges and successes, and in their telling, shed some light on MSU Extension as well.”


Research priorities, though not revamped because of these meetings, will be focused, Buhler said.


“What we heard on the road really reaffirms our commitment to our current research goals centered on food, environment and energy,” he said. “Specifically, we heard comments about genetically modified organisms, animal welfare and other high profile issues. No question these are hot-button issues and ones we realize require continued focus. We also heard encouragement to continue our efforts to help find viable ways to feed the world’s growing population.”


Many of the issues raised about the academic programs will continue to be priority areas for CANR.  Specifically, “to keep our academic programs current, efficient and responsive requires that we continually seek to understand the pressures and demands felt by employers.  To do that, we must engage in dialogue with our stakeholders and employers, not just every five to seven years, but continuously,” Millenbah said.


Millenbah also indicated that under the direction of Randy Showerman, director of the Institute for Agricultural Technology, significant efforts are being undertaken to ensure that MSU is addressing the needs for two-year certificate programs in new and innovative ways including continuing to build valuable partnerships with various community colleges across the state.


For Poston, the meetings gave him some perspective, and heralded a reminder:


“I do this to serve others. That’s easy to lose sight of when I’m here doing the day to day stuff. A lot has changed in 14 years, but the connection part has not,” Poston said.

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