Can OSU ag college face the music?


Ohio State University’s ag college must reinvent itself. Again.

In 1995, the university’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences tackled Project Reinvent to guide the college into the 21st century.

It didn’t last very long into the new century.

New direction. The extensive visioning process supposedly “forged new directions” in the mid-1990s:

* A change in how faculty and staff are evaluated;

* A call to focus resources on key areas that Ohio State does best;

* Increased teamwork with other colleges within the university;

* More partnerships outside the college; and

* Better communication.

“These ideas help poise our college to … become what a land grant college of food, ag and environment should be in the next quarter century,” said college dean Bob Moser back in 1995. “They will be the foundation for what we do in the future.”

Plans look good on paper, but until the footers are poured, nothing gets built.

Back to the future. The university, along with most state agencies, got hammered by the governor’s executive order last month to shave 4 percent from current fiscal year spending.

The governor will issue another order for a 6 percent cut to most state agencies for fiscal year 2005, which begins July 1.

Ohio State’s OSU Extension and the OARDC, the research center, are line items in the state budget and must meet those cuts.

Although resident instruction within the ag college’s Columbus campus wasn’t affected by the governor, Moser told general fund units to plan for the 6 percent cut in the 2005 budget anyway.

To make these cuts – which are on top of cuts, on top of cuts – the college and OSU Extension are looking at the inevitable staffing cuts. An indefinite hiring freeze is already in place. But university leaders are also looking at more grant dollars, more research dollars, more anywhere-we-can-find-them dollars.

Re-invention. Meaningful change will not come to the university until it truly grapples with the question: What is it we do best?

I don’t believe the university bureaucracy and tenured staff can or will answer it. It’s a landmine-laden, political quagmire.

In his book Thriving on Chaos, management guru Tom Peters identifies two keys to staying the ballgame: quality and flexibility.

Ohio State’s ag college has pockets of excellence, but a lot of lint, too. And it’s not very agile.

It’s obvious the ag college can’t continue with all the disciplines it has now. It will flounder both academically and financially if mediocrity persists unchecked.

Gut check. “Typically our attempts to ‘let go’ of activities so we can adequately invest in areas of greatest comparative advantage have gone up in smoke,” wrote L.H. Newcomb, senior associate dean at the ag college, in 1996 during Project Reinvent’s Phase II.

“Somebody must make some very tough decisions in the next three years.”

Eight years later, the tough decisions remain. Will Ohio State make them now?


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