As Helene Dillard wraps up the first four months as dean of UC Davis’ College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, she must realize how rare an opportunity she has as head of the top agriculture school. With climate change reshaping the world, ag sciences haven’t been at the apex of the public’s interest since the Dust Bowl era.
For the sake of the university, the students and faculty, the region and state, Dillard must seize the moment to push UC Davis, and its science-based solutions, onto the world stage to participate in the public policy debate.
Dillard, who visited The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board with UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, outlined her goals for expanding the agriculture school’s influence. She also talked about what’s she’s been doing to reacquaint herself with California and its agricultural landscape.
Dillard left for Cornell University in New York state after earning her doctoral degree in plant pathology here in 1984. She has spent the last 30 years there first as faculty and then as director of Cornell’s Cooperative Extension program.
A lot has changed on California’s farmland in the intervening three decades. For one example, she said that iceberg lettuce was one of the Salinas Valley’s big crops at the time; loose-leaf greens have since mostly replaced the iceberg crops. The differences prompted Dillard to hold “listening sessions” with ag stakeholders to hear about their current concerns and needs.
At the top of the list for everyone was water, Dillard said.
Dillard can and should be a leader on the state’s deepening drought. Its impact offers a dry run of sorts for developing sensible policy for a shifting global climate. Her college already has the tools in place. “We have a center for watershed sciences,” Dillard said. “We have a lot of faculty that are doing all kinds of things that are water-related. We’re really in a good position to really have an impact.”
The college should also have a leading role in the nation’s climate-change policy. In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated UC Davis as one of 10 climate-change “hubs” in the country. These regional hubs will monitor the effects of climate change on the environment, specifically on crops and forests. This research will be essential for the world to make sensible policy to respond to the shift in temperature and its prospects for our food sources, and thus our very survival.
That’s a tall order, to be sure. But Dillard’s vision of the role of UC Davis and the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences in what could be a most transformative era is absolutely the right one. We’ll be counting on her to see it come to fruition.