Neal Van Alfen, who resigned last year as UCD agriculture dean, was known as a formidable fundraiser.

A year later, search for UC Davis ag dean grinds on

Published: Saturday, Sep. 7, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B

His abrupt departure last August from one of the nation's premier agricultural colleges echoed throughout California, from its vast agribusiness community to environmentalists and state leaders.

Now, more than a year after Neal Van Alfen resigned as dean of UC Davis' College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, a permanent successor has yet to be named.

University leaders and search committee members say they will finally begin to consider finalists in the fall. The length of the selection process, with dozens of interests having their say, reflects the broad reach of the University of California, Davis, agricultural school.

The dean is "very important because of the complexity of issues we're facing in the 21st century – the diversity of natural resources, the expectations for agriculture," said state Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross. "The expectations for this candidate are very high, very diverse. Because of the caliber of CAES, it's a pretty elite field."

Ross heads the search committee of outside interest groups, a list that includes agricultural heavyweights such as Foster Farms and E&J Gallo. It also has Fortune 500 companies less associated with farming – Clorox, Starbucks and Wells Fargo – as well as environmental watchers Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy.

Others on the committee include the California Farm Bureau and the Governor's Office.

"The chancellor wanted to make clear that feedback from external stakeholders would be very important," Ross said, referring to UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi.

A second, more traditional search committee is composed of campus leaders.

Michael Lairmore, dean of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and animal science professor Joy Mench head an 18-member panel of professors, students, department chairs and university administrators.

The dean of UC Davis' agriculture school is "significant within the whole landscape of agriculture in the state," said UC Davis Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter. "The dean has important connections with the whole UC system, commodity producers, environmental groups, (non-government organizations), government and policy groups."

When UC Davis opened its doors in 1908, its purpose was clear.

The school was called the "University Farm," and buildings included a two-story creamery with classrooms and a lab, as well as a livestock judging pavilion, according to the university's website.

The university long ago shed its reputation as only a farm school, but it still takes pride in its elite agricultural credentials.

The world-regarded College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences is an academic and research powerhouse: 7,000 students, 330 faculty members, 14 departments and 15 research centers and institutes, all operating on a $225 million budget.

The school lies in the heart of California's diverse, multibillion-dollar agriculture industry and is on the leading edge of crop and forest science. UC Davis is also positioning itself as a leader in food security and other global agriculture issues.

About 80 percent of the world's top seed companies have planted roots within a 100-mile radius of Davis, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

The school earned distinction again under Delany's watch, placing first in the 2013 QS World University Rankings in agriculture and forestry.

In choosing a dean, Katehi has "a very exciting vision of the role UC Davis can fill – its role in food security, water, energy," Ross said, at "the intersection of agriculture, food and health."

Van Alfen's resignation came a month after Katehi, who arrived at UC Davis in 2009, voiced plans to seek a new dean – two years before the end of Van Alfen's term.

A formidable fundraiser, Van Alfen was known in the agricultural community for having the ear and counsel of industry leaders in shepherding the school through a 13-year run that included development of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, UC Davis Olive Center and Agricultural Sustainability Institute.

The same day that Van Alfen left, his longtime lieutenant, James D. MacDonald, handed in his resignation as executive assistant dean, saying he thought Van Alfen was being pushed out.

Mary Delany, an expert in avian genetics who previously led the Department of Animal Science, has earned solid reviews as the agriculture school's interim dean since September 2012.

External committee member Pam Marrone, founder and CEO of Davis-based Marrone Bio Innovations Inc., said search panelists have been gathering information, gathering in listening sessions and soliciting names of potential dean candidates.

"I've heard questions like, 'How much longer?' " said Tim Johnson, chief executive officer of the Sacramento-based California Rice Commission and a search advisory committee member. "The process is slower than we had hoped, but it is a process that allows me to have input rather than being told who the dean is."

So far, there appears to be plenty of input, starting with forums and town halls across the state with ag industry leaders and other interests that launched the search in March.

Candidate interviews, campus visits and a planned series of forums are scheduled for early October.

By then, the current list of 10 to 12 candidates will have been whittled to a short list of three to five finalists.

"We're very hopeful we can do our work and have our finalists to the chancellor to have everything done by the end of the year," Ross said. "It would be fabulous to have a dean seated by the end of the year."

Call The Bee's Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040

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