August 31, 2004

New Agricultural Sciences dean sees opportunities

by K.C. Jaehnig

(PRONOUNCER: "Minish" is "mih-NISH")

Gary L. Minish, the new dean of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's College of Agricultural Sciences, points with pride to a plaque that hangs on his office wall. It cites his old outfit, the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, as one of that university's exemplary units.

That award represents the efforts of everybody in the department," Minish says.This was a department where in 1994, when Minish took charge, everything -- from student numbers to budgets to morale -- had sunk lower than the price of beans when the grain elevator's full. How did rock-bottom rocket into high-flying in just three years?

"We all pulled together, and everything seemed to improve as a result." You'll hear that kind of remark a lot when you talk to Minish.

"I had good people," he'll say when he talks about how research grants and publishing jumped during his seven years as department head.

"They all began to believe we could get things done, and we did," he'll say when he talks about how undergraduate enrollments rose 76 percent to more than 600 students in a department that had only two freshman poultry science majors when he came on board.

From his years at Virginia Tech, Minish came away with an idea that is already shaping his deanship at SIUC.

"Sometimes when things are tough and budgets are tight, that's the best time to set goals and get people to work together," he says.

"I see the same kind of opportunity and potential here, and I think I have the experience that will make it work even better this time around."

The college has a good reputation, a strong research history and, most important, topnotch faculty, staff and alumni, he notes.

"They're better than they think they are," Minish says.

So he's starting with the people. He plans to meet one on one with faculty as a first step in creating the atmosphere of trust and respect he wants to foster in the college. He'll also be traveling throughout the state, listening to everyone who has a stake in how the college does, and looking for people to serve on his new advisory board.

Those two groups -- the faculty and the board -- will play a key role in revamping courses of study at SIUC, a step that at VT played a key role in boosting enrollments. There, faculty and an external advisory board worked together to come up with new specialties that helped graduates fill jobs created by a changing world.

"Our potential here at SIUC is better than it was there because we have several high impact areas -- hospitality and tourism, human nutrition, forest recreation, rural economic development, equine science and pre-veterinary medicine, to name just a few," Minish says.

Other VT student strategies that may work here: informal use of alumni and industry contacts as "recruiters;" a three-day "college camp" for prospective students, featuring residence hall living and classes taught by the college's top teachers; and a freshman blitz, with central advising to make the college student-friendly to newcomers, first-year courses offered by the college's best and brightest, and a buddy system that teams new students with old hands.

Minish also plans to draw on both faculty and advisory board expertise in focusing research activity.

Advisory board members can help identify real-world needs that college research could fill. Three years as a beef-cattle consultant after his retirement from VT showed Minish like nothing else could that those in the business of agriculture rely heavily on university research for help with everything from production to rural development to environmental questions. SIUC's Southern@150 initiative, which aims to place the University among the nation's top 75 research institutions by its 150th anniversary in 2019, provides a useful framework for such a makeover.

"We have the programs -- as a college, we just need to sit down and identify those areas that offer the best funding and placement potential, that fit with all the opportunities that are out there," Minish says.

"That will open the door to collaboration with other institutions and universities (which can boost funding even more). A lot of times you have more impact in a consortium when it comes to going after funds and programs than when you're alone."

While both state and federal research funds have taken big hits in recent years, Minish says his college has a unique advantage in weathering that storm. "Places that have been relying on those funds are having to scramble now, where SIUC is used to having to fend for itself," he says. "It's done a good job in getting funds from other sources."

Minish also wants to establish an in-house mentoring program where senior scientists share expertise, facilities and projects with up-and-coming new researchers.

Improved student recruitment, retention and placement, stronger ties with those outside the university, targeted research focus areas, upgraded facilities and a cheerful working environment are within reach, Minish says.

"I'm ready to go after them, but they'll only go forward when everybody gets behind them," he says.

He looks for a moment at his office wall and the citation from VT.

"I would like to see a 'University Exemplary College' plaque on this wall before I finish here," he says. "That would be a nice award to have."