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Loss of academic infrastructure threatens basics of agriculture

I had an interesting conversation recently with a long-time friend and current administrator in Auburn University’s (my alma mater) College of Agriculture. The gist of the conversation was that it is sad Auburn no longer has an undergraduate program in entomology.

Later that morning, I read the local (Opelika-Auburn News) paper and read about a shiny, new tour bus that was taking football and basketball coaches around the state to recruit athletes. At the prompting of the NCAA they later called it a promotional and fund-raising tour.

Now I like college football as much as the next guy. I started going to Auburn football games at Cliff Hare Stadium by the time I was able to walk and talk. Of course now it’s the 90,000-plus Pat Dye Field at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

It just strikes me as — well sad that as a university we can afford these things, but we can’t afford a program so basic to food production as insect management. After all, Auburn was a Land-Grant University a few years before John Heisman put the AU football program on the map. And, Land-Grant usually means some inclusion of agriculture and mechanics, though my engineering friends writhe at the thought of being tagged as a ‘mechanic’.

I was a college administrator at one time, so I do understand that the Athletic Department at Auburn and at any Land-Grant or state university is funded primarily by private funds and by funds generated by ticket sales and such.

Here’s the rub — for me. The three head coaches in the above mentioned bus make — to the best of my meager mathematical abilities — something like $7 million a year. Clearly, most of that lofty amount comes from private donors — individuals who pay big bucks for some special considerations related to watching a football game at Pat Dye Field at Jordan-Hare Stadium on eight or nine weekends each autumn.

If those die-hard Auburn fans weren’t contributing millions of dollars to the Athletic Department, those dollars could go to other programs — like an Entomology Department in the College of Agriculture — just to mention one of many badly needed programs.

The best Auburn may be able to do to provide farmers, homeowners, landowners — you know the people who actually pay taxes in the state — with college trained insect management personnel is to partner with Tuskegee University to develop a cooperative program — a partnership not an academic department — in entomology.

I’m a big fan of Tuskegee University’s ag program. The dean there, Walter Hill, is a good friend, a good man, a good scientist and an exceptionally good leader. Under his tutelage the quasi-private little university with a rich heritage does a lot of good things with a relatively little bit of money.

With that due respect, I still contend the biggest, oldest and by far best-funded of Alabama’s three Land-Grant Institutions should not have to depend on any other school to have a program in an area of science that was at one time one of the cornerstones on which Auburn and other Land-Grant Institutions across the country were built.

On the surface, not having an undergraduate program in entomology doesn’t seem so bad. There is a Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, which has active graduate students and a well-respected faculty. That would be much like having those highly paid coaches on that bus and their highly paid coaching colleagues, but no football team.

The dwindling number of agricultural programs in traditional agricultural fields is not endemic to Auburn or any single Land-Grant Institution. Such degradation is a clear signal of the erosion of the infrastructure that had made agriculture one of our biggest and most valuable industries in the United States.

Science and technology, one might say, has eliminated the need for undergraduate programs in entomology and other agricultural sciences. We are learning a couple of harsh lessons right now about the long-term effects of depending too highly on science and technology. Herbicide resistant weeds and stinkbugs threaten profitability, if not the very existence of farming on some lands in the Southeast.

What we as ‘aggies’ can or should do about this continued degradation of our industry isn’t at all clear to me. That we need drastic and positive measures is very clear. Change has been slow to erode venerable academic programs like entomology, and restoring such programs to their rightful place in a modern Land-Grant Institution will take some time as well.

Let’s all hope we have the time and the resources to put the mythical genie back in her mythical bottle. Otherwise, we may be paying mythical money for hard to conjure up food and fiber.


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