April 11, 2005

SIUC's ag college eyes 50 more years of excellence

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- His college may turn 50 this year, but Gary L. Minish isn't taking time out for cake and party hats — he's much too busy plotting out the next 50 years.

"The biggest challenge overall is to grow enrollment at both the undergraduate and graduate levels — we want to get students here, keep them here and help them find jobs," said Minish, eighth dean of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"We also need to strengthen connections with our stakeholders. And we have to improve our facilities — reinvent our buildings, classrooms, laboratories and farms. There hasn't been much done to them since they were built 50 years ago. If we're going to have quality teaching programs and cutting-edge research, we have to have modern, up-to-date facilities with good equipment."

In Minish's eyes, when it comes to undergraduate enrollment, everyone's a recruiter.

"We have increased our emphasis on recruiting students at the community college level, and we have faculty who are visiting these colleges even as we speak," he said.

He is also drawing informally on the insider knowledge of alumni and industry contacts as, in his words, "scouts and allies."
"All they have to do is identify potential students, and with the system we have now, we can follow up," Minish said.

That system includes a new recruitment/retention coordinator whose portfolio includes placement duties as well.

"We've not done placement here before, and that's key in recruiting students," Minish said. "They want to know where they can go with their degrees."

In addition, Minish has appointed 12 faculty counselors — two for each major offered by the college — to serve as back-ups in advising students.

"Having faculty and department heads involved in that process has really added to it — it works really well," he said.

Finally, a proposed new doctoral degree should help boost graduate student numbers and provide other benefits, too.

"We believe it will expand our research program and strengthen our total teaching program once it's in place," Minish said.

Minish is going after improved stakeholder connections in a number of ways. For one, he and Associate Dean John S. Russin are serving as active participants on a number of commodity and industry boards throughout the state.

He's also organizing an event he intends to make an annual SIUC tradition, Ag Industry Day, to bring industry clients, commodity group representatives, area farmers, prospective students and alumni to campus for an up-close and personal introduction to college faculty, staff, outreach programs and research activities.

The first such day, set for 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, April 23, will feature U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and Saluki football coach Jerry Kill as well as research highlights and 18 faculty and staff presentations ranging in subject from horsemanship to home gardening, from alternative energy to water quality, from soybean rust to public acceptance of genetically modified crops.

"We want a synergistic working relationship with the people we serve," Minish said. "We're not just asking them for their support — we're here to help them, too."

In addition, he has set up a 50-member college leadership board, which will hold its first meeting April 22, the day before Ag Industry Day. The board will meet twice a year, once in Springfield and once in Carbondale.

"It will help guide and support our programs — review everything from our teaching curriculums to our research areas to our outreach activities," Minish said.

Minish said he will rely on the board to work closely with the faculty, alumni and students when it comes to revamping the curriculum — action that looms on the near horizon.

"We can't be everything to everybody," Minish said. "We have to focus on areas of excellence, on areas that have the potential for growth. That will involve some ‘crystal balling,' but if we get everybody's input, we should end up with a pretty good picture."

If he had to guess, Minish would say those "areas of excellence" likely would focus on food, nutrition and health, animal and plant production, recreation and tourism, forestry, and rural economic development.

"We are already strong in these areas, and they have the greatest potential for impact on the economy," Minish said. "I might be biased, but I think the SIUC College of Agricultural Sciences can be an engine to help grow the economy of Southern Illinois."

To become that kind of engine, though, it must be turbo-charged, not the kind you crank by hand. The ag building "leaks like a sieve when it rains," Minish said, and the wiring is temperamental.

"There's not a single unit that doesn't need attention, and it's not just the buildings," Minish said. "Our equipment is so outmoded and out of date it's more historic than functional.

"If we're going to even maintain what we've got, much less achieve what we want, we have an immediate need for renovation, not just patching. Our labs and classrooms need to be state of the art, just as they are in any other high-tech field. Our facilities need to be as good as the people we have and the teaching and research they do."

Promoting excellence in undergraduate academics, providing assertive and deliberative leadership and serving others are among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.