By Jack Payne
The selection of Dr. W. Kent Fuchs (pronounced “Fox”) as the next president of the University of Florida should be cause for celebration for anyone who cares about Florida agriculture and natural resources.
I’ll confess, I had some initial apprehension about whether an electrical engineer would be properly attuned to the importance of UF’s land-grant mission.
But I had the chance to take the measure of the man one-on-one over a 21Ž2-hour dinner as part of UF’s efforts to recruit top leaders to apply for the presidency, and I’m convinced he will support university research, extension and teaching that improve the lives of all Floridians. I endorse Fuchs, who still has to be confirmed by the State University System Board of Governors.
Fuchs was born into a hardscrabble existence on an Oklahoma farm. It was such a tough life that his dad decided Alaska would be more forgiving, and it’s where Fuchs grew up until the family moved to Miami, where he attended high school.
And let’s remember, he’s provost at one of the most venerable of land-grant universities, Cornell. It’s the only Ivy League school with a horticultural department, much less a School of Integrative Plant Science like the one Fuchs helped launch. Before Cornell, he was a leader at Purdue, also a land-grant university, and taught and researched at a third, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
With his Florida, agriculture, and land-grant bona fides, he sold me on being the right person for the job when he told me that if hired he would go on a statewide tour of stakeholder meetings. Not just to meet donors and alumni, but growers, commodity leaders, natural resource managers and UF/IFAS Extension agents.
That’s a promising sign that he intends to honor the public-service ethic of the land-grant university. He sees his new job the same way I see mine — that his office is not a room in Gainesville, but it’s the entire state. He’s walking the walk in New York with the recently announced Engaged Cornell, a $150 million initiative that aims to institutionalize a mandatory public-service component in undergraduate education so students contribute to solving problems outside the university gates.
UF’s land-grant mission is supposed to apply university wide. Traditionally, though, UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has more demonstrably implemented it than many other branches of the university.
There’s potential for real change in this area as our medical center leaders see in Extension the opportunity to do so much more to promote public health. Similarly, our engineering administrators have approached IFAS about working through Extension to bring technical assistance to businesses and communities.
There are also opportunities for IFAS to do more to serve Florida’s $142-billion-a-year agriculture and natural resource industries, particularly after six years of flat or declining state funding.
Support from UF’s leader is essential to IFAS’s quest to provide solutions to citrus greening, efforts to tackle the state’s water quality and water supply challenges, ambitious plans to expand the work of our agricultural leadership institute and work in helping Florida prepare for climate change and sea-level rise.
The land-grant system was founded more than 150 years ago on the noble proposition of democratizing higher education.
Today we have an opportunity to define the 21st century land-grant institution that is true to its mission while responding to the pressing problems of today.
Today IFAS seeks support from the UF administration to expand four-year online degree programs. We offer these at a discounted tuition to students who by choice or circumstance need a UF education to come to them instead of having to move to Gainesville.
Appalled by anecdotes of students going hungry or even scrounging from garbage bins, we at IFAS have begun formally assessing the extent of food security on campus as the first step toward establishing a food pantry for students in need. We’re hiring more bilingual 4-H agents and partnering with organizations that serve minority populations as we seek to better serve people who have traditionally been underrepresented in our youth development programs.
It’ll take a commitment from the top to secure the resources needed to realize IFAS’s potential. That commitment starts with an appreciation of the land-grant mission. Fuchs has looked me in the eye and shown me he has it.
Over salad, I began probing the extent to which this man intended to honor the land-grant mission with action. By decafs and dessert, I was presenting him with the Gator pin right off my own lapel and letting him know he’d be receiving a copy of A Land Remembered from me.
The presidential search committee on which I served declared a strong academic background an essential criteria for our next leader. The distinguished research background Fuchs has and his Ivy League experience more than satisfy that.
Some of us on the search committee – which also included IFAS plant breeder Harry Klee — also championed an appreciation for the land-grant mission as an important consideration in the search for a new president. We’re gratified to see we have it in Kent Fuchs, and we hope you’ll get to see it when he visits your region.
Jack Payne is senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources, University of Florida, and head of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences