Key leaders at UC Davis ag college resign

Published: Friday, Aug. 31, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B

The top two leaders of the University of California, Davis' signature College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences have resigned their posts.

Dean Neal Van Alfen and Executive Associate Dean James D. MacDonald tendered their resignations Tuesday in letters to Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi and the university's provost, Ralph J. Hexter. Van Alfen intends to remain as a faculty member; MacDonald will leave the school.

Long considered one of the nation's premier agricultural schools, UC Davis now finds itself with what one state agricultural expert called "a void of leadership." UC Davis' agriculture college is the campus' oldest.

"He's been very much an institution there – a terrific fundraiser who made a huge impact," Bob Gray, president and chief executive officer of the Salinas-based California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, said of Van Alfen. "He's been there 13 years at one of the elite schools in the nation. He will be hard to replace. There will be a void of leadership for awhile."

Under Van Alfen's watch, the college developed centers that include the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science and the Agricultural Sustainability Institute, along with the university's centers for produce safety and regional change.

Another of the college's goals was to help foster a "Silicon Valley for food," attracting food firms, science and technology to the Davis area centered on the university's research.

"In 13 years, we've built a very excellent college that's now No. 1 in the world," Van Alfen said. "You can't get better than that."

In his resignation letter and in an interview with The Bee, Van Alfen said the end of his tenure as dean was prompted by Katehi's decision in late July to start her search for a new dean two years before Van Alfen's current term was to expire.

Katehi "indicated what her intentions were," Van Alfen said. "It was up to the provost (Hexter) and I to have a discussion and reach a resolution."

Van Alfen said Katehi asked him to serve until a replacement was found, but he declined.

Katehi was unavailable for comment Thursday. Hexter's office referred questions to the university's public affairs office but spokesman Barry Shiller declined to comment, saying he knew "fairly little" about the situation.

In a statement, Hexter's office said Michael Lairmore, dean of UC Davis' School of Veterinary Medicine, will lead a committee to recruit a new dean. No interim was named.

MacDonald, in a separate letter Tuesday, announced he was walking away in protest of Katehi's move to find a new dean for the college. He will resign today.

"I was frustrated with the push for an early end to (Van Alfen's) term," MacDonald said in an interview Thursday, adding that he had a "fundamental disagreement" with Katehi's decision.

MacDonald, a plant pathologist and expert in root diseases, worked alongside Van Alfen for 13 years and said Van Alfen had persuaded him to put off a planned July retirement until next summer.

"He twisted my arm to stay on and do a couple of things," MacDonald said. In his resignation letter, MacDonald said Van Alfen's departure "now makes that extension agreement moot."

Calling him a close friend and colleague, Van Alfen said MacDonald likely "felt as stunned by this decision as I did. I was very touched by him doing this, I must admit."

Van Alfen says there was no rift between him and the chancellor.

"I'm not aware of any major philosophical differences," Van Alfen said. "I'm not sure we always agreed on what was the best path, but I always felt I supported her."

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Read more articles by Darrell Smith

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