UC Davis taps plant disease specialist from Cornell to lead agricultural school

After a nationwide search, the University of California, Davis, has chosen one of its alumna – a plant disease specialist from Cornell University – to head its world-renowned agricultural school.

On Wednesday, the university announced that Helene Dillard, 58, current head of Cornell’s Cooperative Extension program, will lead the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Dillard will start in late January and will earn a yearly salary of $298,500 as head of one of the world’s top agricultural schools. In the role of dean, she will oversee 330 faculty members and research centers located on and off the UC Davis campus, including the Agricultural Sustainability Institute, the Foods for Health Institute and the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.

“I was interested in this job because UC Davis is the top ranking agricultural and science school in the world – it just got that ranking this year,” Dillard said via phone from Cornell.

Dillard was referring to UC Davis’ top rating for teaching and research in the area of agriculture and forestry by QS World University Rankings, an influential international university ranking provider.

As head of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Dillard will oversee a yearly budget of $234.7 million that includes $83.1 million in state general funds and $151.6 million in other funds.

The appointment ends a lengthy search to replace former Dean Neal Van Alfen, who had served as the position from 1999 until August 2012.

Van Alfen’s tenure ended abruptly when he tendered his resignation soon after Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi voiced plans to seek a new dean – two years before the expected end of Van Alfen’s term. Associate Dean Mary Delany, an avian geneticist and a professor in the Department of Animal Science, served as interim dean during the national search for a permanent dean.

In replacing Van Alfen, Dillard has big shoes to fill. Van Alfen was credited with shepherding the school through a 13-year run that included development of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science and the Agricultural Sustainability Institute.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley in 1977, Dillard headed to UC Davis where she earned a master’s degree in soil science in 1979 and a doctoral degree in plant pathology in 1984.

Upon graduating from UC Davis, Dillard joined the faculty of the Department of Plant Pathology at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y. She currently oversees 1,700 employees at Cornell and an annual budget of $120 million. Dillard was named associate director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension in 2001 and was promoted to director in 2002.

“I really enjoyed my time as a graduate student at UC Davis. It was a special time in my life,” Dillard said. “I feel I was really prepared to go out into the workforce.”

“I see this as a way of giving back and returning back to my roots – it’s like I have come full circle,” she said.

Dillard said she’s focused on keeping UC Davis at the top of agricultural school rankings.

“We can’t just sit back and say we’re No. 1,” she said. “We want to make sure we position the college for another great century of work.”

In her current post, Dillard devoted half her time to research and half to extension efforts in the area of vegetable crops. She has been lauded for creating of a new strategic plan and a rebranding effort for Cornell Cooperative Extension.

It is her passion for extension programs in the agricultural realm that made Dillard stand out among the final short list of four candidates, said Tim Johnson, president and CEO of the California Rice Commission and a member of the selection committee.

“She has a unique combination of skills – she understands and values the extension services of the university,” Johnson said. “Especially in today’s world, that is important. And from an ag perspective Dillard really understands production agriculture.”

Extension programs at UC Davis is characterized by a cross-pollination of scientists and the farming community. With extension programs doctoral scientists are based in the field, not in campus labs. “It’s a partnership between the campus and the counties,” Johnson said.

Dillard said she believes she is coming on board at a pivotal time for agricultural science. “We’re going to be one of the top colleges in addressing the needs of the world, like how do we feed 9 billion people that are projected to be here pretty soon?” Dillard said.

“I really see my role here as kind of being the person that goes out there and meets key leaders in the agriculture and environment industry, and finding out what some of the key issues are that they want to see our college working on,” she said. “And then figuring out what the research questions are that we can address. That will be part of my role. I’ll be bringing those needs back to the faculty in the college.”

Dillard said food security and climate change issues are deeply important.

“The weather patterns here are similar to some of the drought weather some of the African countries are going to be experiencing. In these places they’re predicting drought and famine,” she said. “Our faculty is working on drought tolerant crops, so we’re going to be able to add a lot to our knowledge base as we go into this new climate change world, where things might be drier in some countries and the weather unpredictable in others.”