ASHS Presidential Address: Relevancy in the Corporate University – Horticulture’s 21st Century Challenge

in HortScience

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Relevancy in the corporate university environment may prove to be horticulture’s greatest 21st century challenge, at least from an academic perspective. In beginning to understand horticulture’s relevancy in the 21st century corporate university, one might begin by asking “What is a corporate university?” Unfortunately, there appears to be little consensus on the definition of a corporate university. If one googles the term, a variety of definitions appear ranging from institutions such as McDonald’s Hamburger University, IBM’s executive training program, the for-profit colleges perhaps most famously represented by the University of Phoenix, to a broader definition of a more business-like approach to education at traditional educational institutions.

Modern corporate university models are all about running universities more like businesses. Having my initial training at The Ohio State University in the B.S. in Business Administration program prior to embarking on degrees in horticulture, I am perhaps less philosophically opposed to this than those with training solely in the biological sciences. As I understand it the goal of a corporation is to make a profit for its stockholders. In the case of a public university it might be assume these returns should be cost effective high quality educational outputs for the good of the general public. Most would agree that this is a desirable goal. Unfortunately, the emphasis in many public corporate universities has shifted from outputs such as societal impacts, scholarly work, and quality education to measuring success based on inputs including grants, contracts, donations, sponsorships, branding, research expenditures, tuition revenues and fees generated. This mission drift is particularly concerning at land-grant universities (Arnold, 2015a). I am not the first ASHS president to address various aspects of this problem. A few examples from past presidential addresses include Dr. Richard Lower’s (1991) “Horticulture at Risk,” Dr. Thomas Fretz’s (1992) “Reaffirming Our Land-grant Tradition,” Dr. Daniel J. Cantliffe’s (1995) “Challenges Facing Horticulture in a Changing World,” Dr. R. Daniel Lineberger’s (2003) “Horticulture in the Post-Land Grant Era,” and Dr. Cary Mitchell’s (2004) “A Vision of the New ASHS.”

Dr. George Martin (1990) probably addressed the concerns about corporate universities most thoroughly in his address in which he described a corporate university as “A place of few values and no soul.” This is a sentiment with which I generally agree. I have enumerated my concerns in a recent reflections column on mission drift in land-grant universities (Arnold, 2015a). We could spend the rest of this presidential address bemoaning the evils of corporate universities and land-grant mission drift, but frankly the problem is likely beyond the ability of our horticulture faculty or administrators to change. Our time is probably better spent examining how horticulture can remain relevant in the 21st century corporate university.

In order to remain relevant in the 21st century corporate university horticulture must determine the important professional challenges we will face in the coming century and then how can we contribute to solving those challenges in a corporate university environment. So, what are the professional challenges horticulture will face in the 21st century? Globalization of markets presents a major challenge for horticulture in the 21st century. Competition for industry and academia will occur on a global scale. One of the major aspects for industry will be the opportunity to capitalize on opening market windows, but more challenging will be how to handle the closing or narrowing of traditional marketing windows for horticultural crops and services. A particular challenge for extension will be enabling our clientele to respond to these changing market conditions. In academia and industry there will be an unprecedented need to appreciate and understand cultural diversity. An example of these changing marketing windows might be the North Carolina apple industry of the 1990s. At that time the southern Appalachian apple industry was highly invested in growing ‘Red Delicious’ apples for the early season market window. The southern Appalachian apple industry was far enough south to come into market well before the larger markets in the northern tier of states, but still received enough chilling hours to grow the popular ‘Red Delicious’ cultivar. However, the advent of advances in controlled atmospheric storage allowed the storage of apples essentially year-round and facilitated long distance transport opening the U.S. market to apples from around the world. The market preferences also broadened to include a wider range of cultivars, some of which could be grown in lower chill climates, further enhancing global competition. Only through an understanding of this global market could growers make production and marketing choices that would permit them to adapt to the changing market windows by such techniques as switching to targeting local markets with pick your own or specialty variety production. Looking at the global marketing challenge for apples in a broader perspective, maybe the answer in some apple growing regions where it is possible to grow an alternative crops would be to switch to a completely different fruit, such as the apple of the bible or pomegranate that is gaining in popularity for nutritional and nutraceutical reasons. It will become increasingly important to look at markets from a global perspective when addressing crop choices and production strategies.

Additional challenges await horticulture and other areas of agriculture in corporate universities of the 21st century. The challenge of developing sustainable built environments will be important in light of increased urbanization. Currently 54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas and this percentage is increasing (United Nations, 2014). This increasing urbanization means more and more people will be concentrated in high-density areas with the potential to cause significant environmental degradation. Finding means to mitigate this degradation and capitalize on ecosystem services from landscapes in the built environment will be a challenge for horticulture in the 21st century.

Perhaps more daunting is the prospect of finding ways to provide sustainable production of horticultural and agricultural crops to feed current estimates of 7 billion people. If this is not challenging enough, the United Nations in a recent study reported a 95% likelihood of the earth’s population reaching 11 billion people by 2100 (Gerland et al., 2014). If you are willing to accept a greater uncertainty, there is an approximately 80% likelihood that the range includes as much as 13 billion people by 2100. On an average basis that is nearly a doubling of the population of every street, town, county, and country in the world, although the problem will be exacerbated by a concentration of much of the population growth in already crowded portions of Africa and Asia, further straining the world’s capacity to feed, clothe and house these populations. The need for the nutrition provided by many horticultural crops will be critical to a sustainable solution.

If these changes in global markets and demographic changes were not enough professional challenges, we must solve them in light of challenging global, regional and local environmental issues. Limited water quantity and declining water quality available for irrigation of horticultural crops is becoming a challenge in many regions (U.S. Environ. Protection Agency, 2015b). General uncertainties associated with climate change present significant potentially negative impacts on many areas of agriculture and our food supply (U.S. Environ. Protection Agency, 2015a), including horticultural crops. As we attempt to mitigate the impact of CO2 emissions on greenhouse gasses, identifying energy saving methods for producing horticultural crops will become another a necessary challenge.

Ironically as we attempt to meet the previously discussed professional challenges associated with population growth and environmental changes, we must do so in the context of additional political, technological and economic challenges. Science is under fire. Indeed the popular magazine National Geographic dedicated the cover of their March 2015 issue to “The War On Science.” Skepticism about science and polarization are rampant political issues that undermine the use of science to solve pressing problems (Achenbach, 2015). Significant public opinion differs from that of knowledgeable scientists on important issues such as the safety of genetically modified foods, human impact on climate change, use of childhood vaccines, and even issues that were thought to be long resolved such as evolution (Vergano, 2015). This adds additional challenges for horticulture in the 21st century corporate university as science is the tool we would most likely turn toward to provide solutions to many of these challenges.

Further complicating our ability to meet these 21st century challenges in horticulture is a limited availability of human capital for production of horticultural crops. Relative to most agronomic crops, many horticultural crops are more labor intensive. With a millennial generation that may prefer jobs in technology to those that require exposure to sometimes uncomfortable outdoor conditions, labor shortages present a real challenge. In addition, rapid technological changes in communications and production technology are resulting in very short lead-times in adapting to changing markets, placing a greater value on flexibility in work force availability and their range of skill levels. Volatility in the industry is becoming the rule rather than the exception. These demands for flexibility and versatility are not typically ones that horticultural industries or horticultural educational institutions have been particularly adept at meeting, but must adjust to in the future.

As we rise to meet these 21st century challenges we must do so in the midst of a generational transition. A changing of the guard from the baby boomers to the Gen X, Gen Y, and millennial generations is taking place both in industry and the ranks of horticultural academicians. A recent survey of universities with graduate programs in horticulture revealed that the typical academic unit consisted of 76.1% senior faculty (professors and associate professors) with only 18.3% of the faculty classified as assistant professors (Arnold et al., 2014). It is the younger faculty who must meet the brunt of the challenges in the coming century. How these aging horticultural units are able to replace vacated positions and train high quality replacements capable of meeting these 21st century challenges in a corporate university environment will be critical to survival of horticulture as a discipline in 21st century corporate universities. We also must meet these challenges of generational transition in the midst of declining undergraduate enrollment in many of our horticulture programs (Reed et al., 2015). Millennial students appear to have shifting priorities compared to earlier generations (Arnold, 2015b; Reed et al., 2015). Among other challenges for horticultural managers and educators, many millennials are engaged in activities involving a video screen and may lack an affinity for the outdoor environment. Additionally there is an increased emphasis on cost/return for college degrees. Horticultural careers may be high in intangible benefits and job satisfaction, but may lag in fiscal rewards. This has resulted in bad press (Anonymous, 2011) that must be countered to permit effective student recruiting.

Overshadowing the previously mentioned professional challenges for horticulture in the 21st century corporate university are the radical changes to the traditional land-grant models (Arnold, 2015a). Perhaps the underlying impetus to most of these changes is the continued assault on formula funding which has traditionally supported the basic infrastructure, particularly for research and extension efforts, in agriculture at land-grant institutions. Thus, grant dollars rule! This paradigm has been particularly difficult for traditionally applied or translational research oriented disciplines such as horticulture. This has led to increased departmental consolidation with horticulture being merged into units, typically other plant science or general agriculture units. Seldom has this resulted in a stronger horticulture program than in stand-alone departments. Vacated horticulture positions are often filled with new faculty in other disciplines better positioned to compete for large research grants. Undergraduate focused teaching programs such as horticulture often take a back seat as afterthoughts in the rush for grant dollars. It never pays to lose your seat at the dean’s table. Once horticulture is merged with another department, it loses its focused advocate to upper administration. Preserving departmental solvency and independence will be absolutely critical to horticulture’s ability to compete as an academic discipline in the 21st century corporate university environment.

One might say that we have done a reasonably thorough job of outlining the professional challenges which horticulture faces in the 21st century corporate university environment, but what can we do about them? When answering this question it might be appropriate to consider what our administrators in the land grant system consider to be the most pressing priorities to address since this is likely where they will allocate resources or attempt to influence the allocation of federal or state resources. If we look to the APLU ESCOP (Assoc. Public Land-grant Univ. Expt. Stat. Committee on Organization and Policy Sci. and Tech. Committee, 2010) science roadmap, we find that they have identified seven grand challenges: 1) “enhancing the sustainability, competiveness, and profitability of U.S. food and agricultural systems,” 2) “adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change on food, feed, fiber, and fuel systems in the United States,” 3) “support energy security and the development of the bioeconomy from renewable natural resources in the United States,” 4) “play a leadership role to ensure a safe, secure, and abundant food supply for the United States and the world,” 5) “improve human health, nutrition, and wellness of the U.S. population,” 6) “heighten environmental stewardship through the development of sustainable management practices,” and 7) “strengthen individual, family, and community development and resilience.” Seeing this list should be cause for celebration in horticulture! There is not a single area in which horticulture fails to contribute to researchable solutions. Horticulture should be positioned to fully participate in ESCOP priority areas!

Sustainability is an area in which horticulture can be particularly relevant in the 21st century corporate university. Sustainable productions systems, both for food and green industry products, are naturals for horticultural research. Vertical and controlled environment farming, food safety, edible landscapes, production of local foods, and farm-to-table operations are all translational research areas for horticultural crops. Basic scientists in horticultural fields can contribute by augmenting traditional breeding with advances in genomics, epigenetics or bioinformatics research. For instance, the application of marker assisted breeding to efforts aimed at the development of stress resistant food crops and resource efficient landscape plants would accelerate traditional breeding programs.

Sustainable issues can also readily be incorporated into horticulture courses and curricula. Horticulture is already inherently based on sustainable practices. With a few tweaks, most courses can be modified to emphasis sustainable concepts. Resultant emphasis on sustainability in curricula may make them more marketable to millennial students.

Horticulture can drive sustainable research and design application in the built environment contributing to solutions to global and local environmental issues, particularly for urban and suburban locations. On a broader perspective, horticulturists can contribute to anticipating and moderating impacts of climate change through ecosystem modeling. For instance modeling the impacts of climate change on regional crop adaptability, cultivar selection, crop interactions with pollinator populations or the impacts on urban heat islands are all examples of areas in which horticulture can contribute to researchable solutions. Research on ecosystem services in built environments can assist with mitigating degradation associated with increased urbanization. Horticulture is already on the forefront of contributing relevant research and design innovations in green roofs, living walls, and biofiltration systems. Horticulture is also a relevant component in efforts to improve community resiliency. Improved aesthetic designs in landscapes contribute to an enhanced sense of place and well being. Community gardens have been shown to contribute to enhanced neighborhood resiliency and other favorable community developments (Gorham et al., 2009).

Horticulture is not only relevant in the 21st century corporate university, but is particularly relevant to university impacts on a global stage. Already many of our university horticulture programs are stressing globalization through requirement of high impact international experiences, foreign languages, and multicultural education. How do we design the new foods and living spaces of the future without an understanding of the cultural impacts on their acceptance? Horticultural crops are equally relevant to developed countries as well as subsistence cultures. Appealing fresh fruit and vegetables offer nutritional alternatives to fast foods that contribute to obesity in many developed countries. Equally relevant to human health issues on a global perspective are the vital nutrients derived from locally grown horticultural crops in subsistence cultures which supplement diets otherwise heavily dependent upon high caloric agronomic crops. Horticulture can also contribute to global political stability. Providing countries with the means to feed themselves with nutritious foods contributes to political stability. Horticultural crops may also provide high value cash crops for rural farmers to ship to urban areas in subsistence cultures, or may provide them with legal cash crops for export.

Researching and extending innovative developments in technology are another area in which horticulture can be relevant in the 21st century corporate university. This is an area particularly ripe for quick payoffs. Innovations in increasing automation of horticulture crop production can help growers to counter shortages of human capital. Other innovations, such as work with light emitting diodes to reduce energy consumption in greenhouses (Wallheimer, 2010), offer opportunities to reduce energy footprints during production of horticultural crops. Embracing online outreach efforts and the development of electronic management applications for decision making can contribute to energy savings and resource conservation. This can be on the level of a small single crop in a family owned greenhouse or as large scale as regional water allocations such as the Coachella Valley Water District efforts where horticultural crops and the latest irrigation technologies are major players.

So what are ASHS’ priority areas to enhance horticulture’s relevancy in the 21st century corporate university? One crucial function is that ASHS can collectively advocate for individual departmental identity and solvency. Our society can contribute to this advocacy by sponsoring and leading the Seed Your Future, Promoting Horticulture in the U.S. effort. Hopefully this effort will result in shoring up student enrollment numbers contributing to horticulture departmental and programmatic stability in 21st century corporate universities.

As grants will rule in the 21st century corporate university, it is critical that ASHS advocate engaging stakeholders at federal grant allocation levels to ensure an adequate pool of funds to support horticultural research, outreach and educational efforts. The ASHS National Initiatives Committee needs to take every opportunity to engage federal stakeholders and industry in supporting both competitive funding to fuel new initiatives and formula funds to ensure that a base infrastructure of core facilities, scientists, and teachers with horticultural knowledge are available to implement the grants in a timely and effective manner. Addressing critical threats to food security and bioremediation cannot be accomplished on sporadic funding sources alone such as grants targeted to solve specific problems, but rather a capacity to respond must be maintained with steady sources of funds so that they can be mobilized when the need arises through the allocation of competitive funds. For instance, incorporating resistance to an important horticultural crops in response to an emerging new disease or pest might well be served by targeted grant funds, but these efforts cannot be accomplished in a timely manner, if at all, without a base of genetically diverse breeding stock, facilities to accomplish the work, and scientists trained in breeding that crop already in place to utilize the targeted grant resources. These fixed costs to research must be maintained through formula funds.

Traditional ASHS working groups and the annual conference can be re-envisioned. Working groups have been largely utilized as governing bodies and program planners for the annual conferences. Could these groups of individuals from diverse backgrounds with common interests be the incubators for large scale grant submissions and research initiatives? Could these new initiatives or already existing horticulturists working on large grants utilize the day before or after the conference to hold a specific grant or initiative meeting? Perhaps ASHS could serve as a facilitator for these activities.

As our organization and profession evolve we must identify new funding strategies and opportunities. Professionally grants are a major player, but endowment of programs offers a strong mechanism to demonstrate industry or public support and may be a major avenue for preserving the relevancy of applied or translational research, teaching, or outreach positions in horticulture programs. Likewise, ASHS is moving forward with endowment efforts not only to support general operations, but to support targeted areas such as student participation in conferences. As Dr. Paul Thomas, chair of the ASHS endowment committee, keeps telling us successfully garnering endowment funds is all about emphasizing impacts. As we move forward in the 21st century ASHS may need to consider repositioning current publications and member services to broaden their appeal to capture new membership from non-traditional sources. Examples of some current attempts at these changes are the development of a new peer review system for teaching and extension horticulture instruction materials, entitled HortIM. This will provide a valuable service for our teaching and extension faculty members, particularly junior faculty in tenure track positions. The resultant organized database of horticulture instructional materials may attract instructors from various levels of educational instruction, horticulture consultants, and county level extension personnel who might not previously have been involved with ASHS. Another example might be the development of badge type certifications on specific horticultural topics that can be used as marketing tools for industry partners and encouraging involvement of another underrepresented group in ASHS and helping to market ASHS as a credentialing entity.

We constantly extol our students to be prepared with a two-minute elevator speech of why your program is important enough for someone to support you. Thus I will conclude by asking, how is horticulture relevant? I would answer by saying it is the background for your life. Horticulture is the coffee with your morning breakfast. Horticulture is the streetscape that you enjoy on your way to work. Horticulture is the floral arrangements and interiorscape plants that make your office livable. Horticulture is the juice and fruit you eat during your morning snack. Horticulture is this the field of dreams on which your children bring their athletic triumphs to life. Horticulture is the biofiltration system that keeps your drinking water safe and provides a safe place for your family to fish and swim. After a hard day’s work or fun day at the park, horticulture is the shady tree under which you rest with your friends. Horticulture is responsible for the healthy vegetables that grace your dinner table, as well as the pumpkin pie you enjoy at the holidays. Horticulture is the flowers that help to make your daughter’s wedding day extra special. When you have successes in life, horticulture is the wine or beer with which you toast that success. At the end of a long day, horticulture is the chocolate that you sneak as a reward before bedtime. When you or a family member is sick and needs help, horticultural crops are often the source of the medicines that make you well again. In short, “Horticulture sustains life.” Help us enrich and sustain our world!

It has truly been my privilege this past year to serve as president of your society! Please accept my sincere thanks to all whom have provided their generous assistance. In particular I would like to thank Mike Neff and the wonderful ASHS staff, my current and former administrators, Dr. R. Daniel Lineberger, Dr. Tim Davis, Dr. David Reed, and the late Dr. Samuel Cotner for supporting their faculties’ service in professional organizations, and finally my wife Amanda and sons Saunders and Zane for their loving support and understanding of time spent away from our family. I consider this past year to be the highlight of my career and thank the society for the opportunity to serve.

Literature Cited

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Contributor Notes

Presented as the presidential address at the 112th Annual Conference of the American Society for Horticultural Science, New Orleans, Louisiana, 6 Aug. 2015. Viewpoints are published in HortScience to provide Members of the American Society for Horticultural Science an opportunity to share their experiences and comment on matters of concern to horticulturists. These are not statements of official Society policy, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of a majority of the Society’s members. Opinions expressed are entirely those of the author and do not represent official statements associated in any way with Texas A&M University, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, or the American Society for Horticultural Science.

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