VandenBosch says college redesign will position CALS, students for future success

Last week, Dean Kate VandenBosch sent an op-ed piece to editors of Wisconsin agricultural media outlets summarizing how the design will position the college and our students for future success. Here is the text of the piece:

Many people in Wisconsin are aware of the funding changes for higher education. Those changes mean that student tuition supports a greater share of the costs of our public universities, as the state and federal governments pay a smaller share. The students and their families paying tuition want to know that they are getting an excellent education, and we at the UW–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) want to exceed their expectations.To that end, CALS has embarked on an Organizational Redesign effort to optimize the structures of the college to ensure a bright future for our college, the students we teach and the people we serve through our research and outreach.

Experts tell us that today’s students will likely work in a long series of short-term professional roles. This is far different than prior generations of graduates who looked forward to many decades working for a single corporation. To succeed in this “gig economy,” our students need to learn flexibility and collaboration, so they can continue to successfully adapt over the span of their careers in agriculture, natural resources and the life sciences. To prepare students for this reality, CALS needs collaborative academic programs drawing on many perspectives, including biological and social sciences, in order to deliver this training to them.

That means we need to ensure that our resources are being directed where they can have the greatest impact on the most students. Because resources are tight, it also means we have to stop offering some programs that are serving small audiences. A look at our recent trends shows that several of our programs have declining enrollments. In order to ensure a robust college for the future, we need to strategically increase our enrollments in cost effective ways.

To do so, we are examining our administrative structures — our academic departments — which exist largely the way they did fifty years ago. It is important to think about how these units can function and be structured to lessen the administrative overhead whenever possible. I believe that new collaborations and partnerships are key to sharing that workload. For example, a department with a larger faculty has more people to fulfill obligatory committee responsibilities, while smaller departments have the same responsibilities shared among fewer faculty, such that service commitments increasingly compete for their vital time for teaching, research and engagement with industry partners.

Right now, we are beginning to discuss options for how we can redesign the departmental structures and academic programs within our college. This will be a deliberative process with no immediate changes. During the spring and into the summer, I will be talking with department chairs and our faculty and staff about partnerships within CALS that will increase efficiencies and return the most on our investments. In the fall, these discussions will lead to specific plans for newly merged departments or departments working together in collaborative relationships with shared decision-making. I also anticipate specific plans to offer fewer academic majors while creating more options for students within existing majors. Implementation of any specific plans will begin during the next academic year and likely continue into the following year.In addition to improving the student experience, it is our belief that these changes will help strengthen our relationships with industry partners, which are extremely valuable to the college.

We are lucky in CALS to have great faculty and staff, students and prospective students who are curious and driven to gain broad knowledge about the natural world and how this information can be applied. New technologies, from advanced genetics to data analytics, have altered the borders of our fields by introducing commonalities. CALS personnel excel at dealing with complex problems that require integrative approaches. We can and will help solve tomorrow’s production agriculture challenges, but we need to have the best organizational structure to ensure we are positioned to protect that promise for the future.

Change is difficult, and I understand that. It is important to keep in mind that the core of what we do will stay the same. We will remain true to our signature strengths and the key partnerships that inspire and sustain us. CALS will continue to conduct cutting-edge research; offer students a world-class education, including hands-on research and internships experiences; and support Wisconsin agriculture through applied research and outreach.

I look forward to continuing to serve Wisconsin agriculture, our students and the people of Wisconsin.