College of Agriculture and Life Sciences charts a strategic path to help communities thrive
Increasing diversity, boosting research funding, providing student experiences, and supporting Extension’s expanding reach were among the priorities Dean Alan Grant outlined during a recent Virginia Tech Board of Visitors meeting.
The guiding mission of the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is to help communities thrive through its land-grant mission of research, teaching, and Extension. Through good times and bad, the principle of supporting communities has enabled the college to chart a strategic path while meeting the unanticipated challenges that arise.
Alan Grant, dean of the college, recently told the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors that this guiding principle was especially valuable during the past year, as the college delivered on its land-grant promise during the COVID-19 pandemic, while also finalizing a strategic plan that charts a course for a robust future.
Grant shared how the college’s academic programs, the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station and Virginia Cooperative Extension, including Virginia 4-H, and the Agricultural Research and Extension Centers, are building on a number of successes and continuing to expand upon them.
“This was a challenging year for everyone, but we believe that by sticking to our guiding principles while looking ahead at our bright shared future, the college is positioned well to continue making meaningful impacts in the communities that we serve around the globe,” Grant said.
The college has had many successes in recent years upon which to build.
In recent years, extramural funding has continued to trend upward with a focus on larger grants that are led by many of the college’s faculty and address complex problems. The funding portfolio is diverse and includes awards like a $4 million USDA grant to protect plants, like boxwoods, from disease and a $1.2 million NSF grant to educate underserved populations on how to use and harness big data, among many others.
Over the past three years, Virginia Cooperative Extension, with its network of local offices, Agricultural Research and Extension Centers, and the Virginia Tech main campus, made nearly 8 million direct contacts with clients. The work that Extension does in sharing knowledge with the world goes to the heart of Virginia Tech’s global land-grant mission.
Among the many initiatives of CALS Global, the college’s international programs office, are efforts to increase opportunities for faculty and students to gain international experience and to pursue international collaborations. In the recent years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the college saw a significant growth in student enrollment in study abroad programs and an increase in the study abroad classes offered in locations around the world.
All the while, the college continued to enact one of its core values of increasing the diversity of its students, faculty, and staff. Last year, the college hired Chevon Thorpe for the newly created position of assistant dean of inclusion, diversity, and equity.
During the strategic planning process, faculty and staff from around the college were involved in helping to create a blueprint that laid out a clear and ambitious path for the years ahead. The process was led by Tom Thompson, associate dean and director of CALS Global. Erin McCann and Lauren Henson from the Virginia Tech Office of Strategic Affairs helped to explore ways of aligning milestones with the university’s Beyond Boundaries vision.
The strategic plan’s guiding principle is that the college helps communities thrive in Virginia and around the world. Numerous programs contribute to key strengths in food systems, health sciences, the economy, and the environment, and these programs are evolving and adjusting to meet the diverse challenges that communities face. This framework enables existing programs to accentuate their strengths and ensures that new initiatives are being developed to help the college carry out its global land-grant mission.
One such initiative is the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture, which was recently created in response to external stakeholders wanting the college to leverage science and technology to address opportunities and challenges in the rapidly changing agricultural and food industries. The center’s director, Susan Duncan, has worked with the faculty within the college and across the university to identify initial projects that contribute to areas including the SmartFarm Innovation Network; cyberbiosecurity and biosecurity in agriculture and life sciences; and data analytics, decisions, and machine learning for food, agriculture, communities, and health systems.
The college continues to embark on research and outreach programs that address infectious and chronic diseases. For example, biochemistry professor Zhijian “Jake” Tu was recently named a University Distinguished Professor for his program that studies the genetics and physiology of mosquitoes with the long-term goal of reducing the burden of vector-borne infectious diseases like malaria. Robert Grange, human nutrition, foods, and exercise, is leading a research program that is aimed to provide better treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. At the same time, Virginia Cooperative Extension is harnessing the power of its reach across the commonwealth with educational programs to help fight the opioid epidemic.
Grant said the college is making investments now that will help build a foundation for the strategic plan in years to come. Current capital projects include the construction of a new Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Hampton, Virginia, and the construction of 10 new buildings that are part of the college’s ongoing efforts to improve the livestock and poultry facilities. Improvements are also being made to the ARECs to improve internet connectivity that is important in supporting the SmartFarm Innovation Network. Planning continues for future capital projects, too.
Grant also emphasized the importance of the Agency 229 budget, which partially supports the Agricultural Experiment Station and Virginia Cooperative Extension, in bolstering the economies of communities. He cited work by agricultural economists in the college showing that the return of investment of state and federal funds in Agency 229 is significant in increasing the output of Virginia’s agricultural industry, which is Virginia’s largest private industry.
Grant also praised the faculty, staff, and students for their resiliency and dedication to the college’s missions throughout the pandemic. Teaching faculty found new ways to deliver instruction, which resulted in innovative ways to teach the next generation of leaders. Students transitioned to new learning environments in modified teaching laboratories and in new virtual formats. Many shifted their research to address COVID-related issues, and Extension faculty found new ways to deliver programs, such as with Facebook Live events and recorded videos and other virtual venues. Virginia 4-H continued to help youth across the state and formed valuable partnerships with NASA, Google, and many others. The college also published its annual Global Agricultural Productivity Report with a timely theme – Productivity in a Time of Pandemics.
The college has outlined a number of goals and milestones in its strategic plan, many of which relate to experiential learning opportunities for all students, diversifying and increasing extramural expenditures, increasing philanthropic fundraising, and continuing to increase the diversity of faculty, staff, and students.
“We are confident that by working together toward these shared goals, that the college can continue to be a leading college of agriculture and life sciences around the world, and can continue to help communities thrive,” Grant said.