Dr. Richard Linton, named dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in mid-September, is in full-bore learning mode and feeling a bit, well, like a sponge, trying to soak in as much as he can.
Linton’s first day on the job – he succeeds Dr. Johnny Wynne, who retired in July after more than 8 years as CALS dean — was Sept. 15, which was also the date for the annual CALS Tailgate celebration. So on the new dean’s first day, he attended Tailgate and met hundreds of College faculty, staff, alumni and friends.
Since then, Linton has been crisscrossing North Carolina and the N.C. State University campus, getting to know CALS better. Linton comes to CALS and N.C. State from The Ohio State University, where he was chair of the Department of Food Science and Technology, the largest food science and technology program in the country. Before that, Linton, an expert in food microbiology and developing food-safety systems to reduce the risk of foodborne illness, was a professor of food science, center director and unit leader at Purdue University.
At Purdue, Linton directed the Center for Food Safety Engineering, which provides knowledge to detect and prevent chemical and microbial food contamination. In his 17 years at Purdue, Linton also coordinated interdisciplinary and integrative efforts as an assistant and associate director with the university’s Agricultural Research Services unit.
All the new dean’s degrees — a bachelor’s in biology in 1988 and master’s and Ph.D. in food science in 1991 and 1994, respectively — are from Virginia Tech, which introduced him to N.C. State and CALS.
“When I was at Virginia Tech, I visited North Carolina State many times and had a number of different projects with North Carolina State faculty,” Linton says. “So I’ve been on campus about 20 times during my career, but I never had the opportunity to tour the state.”
While Linton was familiar with N.C. State and CALS, he didn’t really know the College or the university. Much of his focus since Tailgate and that first day on the job has been on getting to know the College and its many stakeholders around the state.
Linton says his days typically begin with a working breakfast, include meetings with various groups and individuals on and off campus throughout the day and end with as many as three evening meal meetings.
“I describe it to my wife as every day I’m a sponge,” says Linton. “And at the beginning of the day, I’m a dried sponge that tries to absorb as much information as I can. Some nights when I get home, that sponge is so saturated with new information, that if you try to pick up anything more, the brain has a hard time processing it all. But that’s OK, there is always a new morning.”
Linton says he has been pleasantly surprised by the diversity of North Carolina agriculture and life sciences and the connections that link CALS throughout the state.
“I understand the ag and life sciences system very well,” he says. “But I come from states that are not nearly as diverse as North Carolina. That’s what makes this opportunity so interesting.
“Certainly before coming to North Carolina State to interview, I looked at what was offered relative to agriculture and life sciences. But you really have to come and you really need to visit the state to understand the breadth of all the different commodity groups, the ag biotech industry and the life science-related industries. So, yes, I read about it, but I’ve really come to understand the potential and the possibilities by making visits around the state.”
And then there’s North Carolina Cooperative Extension, the university’s premier outreach effort.
“I think my biggest surprise — and it’s been a good surprise — is there’s a phenomenal network here with Cooperative Extension and its positive connection to stakeholders and the community,” Linton says. “I think what I’ve been most surprised about is when I go out and visit in the state and go to different meetings, how critical the outreach effort of Cooperative Extension is and how connected people feel to the university. At the other land-grant institutions that I’ve been at, I’ve not seen nearly that connection with community and connection with stakeholders. North Carolina State is different.”
He has also been impressed by the commitment he has seen on and off campus.
Says Linton, “I think the commitment of people here at North Carolina State to what they do in research, teaching, extension and international programs is outstanding. And I also think that the commitment and passion I see throughout the state from stakeholders is the same way.”
Suzanne Stanard photo
Dean Linton toured the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis, where he learned about the efforts of CALS' Plants for Human Health Institute.
Linton is launching a strategic planning initiative for the College, and he sees the initiative guiding CALS into the future.
“I think the biggest challenge is to be able to understand our capabilities today, to understand the future needs of agriculture and life sciences and to be able to efficiently connect the two together so that we can continue to grow upon the really good things we already do and to be able to grow into new areas where we will have the opportunities of the future,” he says.
He sees strategic planning helping “us understand who we are today and who we need to be in the future. I think it’s critically important for us to do this, and I think the time is right for this process.”
These areas of opportunity, he says, “are likely to include things like energy and bioenergy, food safety and food security, climate change, water quality and water quantity, foods and human health, sustainability and local foods, agricultural biotechnology and the impacts of agriculture and life sciences on the environment.
“I think another opportunity that I hear as I go around the state is this growing interest and need to be able educate potential students about what agriculture and life sciences are and the job opportunities in these areas.”
Linton said the College can do a better job of recruiting the best and brightest students by explaining that agriculture and life sciences today are more than cows and corn and tractors.
“They (students) don’t realize that agriculture and life sciences involve genetic engineering for plant breeding. They don’t understand that it involves high-level science with ag biotechnology. They don’t realize that it means developing new technologies to process food,” says Linton.
CALS must attract the best students, Linton adds, in order to educate and graduate the next generation of agricultural scientists and workers. Without that generation, he points out, “We won’t be able to meet the world’s grand challenge, which is to feed the world in 2050,” when experts estimate food production will need to increase by 70 to 100 percent. “It is our job to meet this challenge.”
Linton’s days are on the hectic, spongy side, but, he says, “That’s what I need to do. In my first six months, it’s all about intensively listening to people and learning about what’s going on, so that I can best prepare myself to lead. And that listening needs to continue throughout my tenure as dean.
“You’ve got to listen and learn before you can lead, and I think leadership is about providing opportunities, providing opportunities for faculty and staff and students on campus and providing opportunities for us to grow as a state in agriculture and life sciences. And that’s what I think my job should be all about.”