Agricultural Sciences? Think again, says dean

by Stephen Forgacs

Staff writer

Agricultural Sciences. What does that mean to you?

Chances are, says the faculty's new dean, Moura Quayle, the impression that many people have of the faculty poorly reflects the range of expertise and activity within its variety of programs and departments.

The Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, one of UBC's founding faculties, is in the early stages of a process that will bring about a transformation, including an emphasis on interdisciplinary research and education, stronger relationships with the community outside the university and even a new name for the faculty.

"While many of us in the faculty have roots and research interests in the areas of agriculture and food production, we need to set what we do in a much broader context. We have to become, in a sense, a marketer of the importance of food and agriculture as it exists in the context of being a resource system," Quayle says.

"We have to be able to say to students: `Are you interested in being part of a faculty that is engaged in critical problem solving for the planet's future?'"

Changes, says Quayle, are necessary to reposition the faculty to better meet the needs and interests of students, to allow the faculty to address global issues related to sustainable land and food systems in an interdisciplinary context.

"I've spent many hours during the past months speaking with our faculty members, students, representatives of industry and government, and others. It is very clear that we need to transform the faculty in order to take advantage of the knowledge base we have," Quayle says.

The Faculty of Agricultural Sciences includes the departments of Agricultural Economics, Animal Science, Food Science, Plant Science, and Soil Science as well as the School of Family and Nutritional Sciences and the Landscape Architecture Program.

Quayle, former director of the faculty's Landscape Architecture Program, has involved faculty members and administrative staff in a process of rethinking the structure and role of the faculty. Staff, students and faculty members formed 14 interdisciplinary groups, or circles, to examine issues and areas such as the Botanical Garden, graduate programs, continuing education outreach, and land resources.

This process has led to the creation of four new larger circles: sustainable resource systems; family, community and place; food and nutrition systems; and the faculty core.

Faculty, staff and student members of each of these new circles will deal with a number of challenges, including trying to determine which undergraduate and graduate programs should be maintained, created or removed.

Other challenges include finding ways to integrate different models of education delivery and suggesting new names for a transformed faculty.

"In one sense we're ahead of the game in that we have an interdisciplinary faculty. What we need to do is to make sure we use that foundation to deliver programs that are relevant to today's students, that use our collective expertise to address global issues, and that provide our graduates with knowledge and thinking skills that will make them invaluable as employees and decision makers."

Quayle says that students should emerge from the faculty as potential employees who can think on their feet and can view resource issues in a broader context.

"We need to remember that we're partnering with university colleges who can deliver some of the more technical and production-related people that those industries need. We have to find an appropriate niche and really build on it."

A "transformed" faculty, she says, will be more global and interdisciplinary in its outlook; combine research, teaching and outreach as components of the learning process at all levels; emphasize problem-solving and provide an environment for intellectual debate; and build connections within the university and with external workplaces, industry, and the national and international research community.

"This is a difficult juncture," says Quayle. "But I think that in the past we've balked at it because it hasn't been clear where we want to go. The process we're now engaged in will give us more shape and the ability to determine what we should be doing, and how we should be doing it."