LSU College of Agriculture Stakeholder Summit moves to virtual platform

The LSU College of Agriculture Stakeholder Summit plays an essential role in keeping stakeholders informed on the college's current outlook and climate. This year the stakeholder summit held vital importance as the LSU College of Agriculture intended to unveil its newest strategic plan.

LSU has been in the process of developing an updated universitywide strategic plan since early 2016. The previous LSU strategic plans centered around the growth of the university.

This new initiative was designed to focus on the advancement of leadership roles held by LSU’s faculty, staff and students, both in the state and across the nation. The university hopes to, in turn, advance the institution and graduate leaders. The LSU Strategic Plan 2025 was approved and launched during the summer of 2017.

The LSU Strategic Plan 2025 served as the guide for the LSU College of Agriculture to move forward with developing a collegewide strategic plan to align with the university's vision. The LSU College of Agriculture planned to revisit its strategic plan to better focus on its mission, vision and values. One of the ways the strategic plan is being reshaped is by incorporating the feedback of stakeholders.

During the fall of 2019, the college administered a survey to its alumni, students, faculty, staff and agriculture industry leaders. The survey asked stakeholders for their input and ideas on how to best work toward developing clear and strategic initiatives to guide the college through the next five years.

The LSU College of Agriculture originally planned to host an in-person Stakeholder Summit event to engage with their stakeholders. Because of COVID-19, the LSU College of Agriculture moved their summit to a virtual setting.

“Although we would have much rather hosted our stakeholder groups on the beautiful LSU campus, the virtual stakeholder conference created the space we needed to engage in meaningful discussions on the future,” said Amanda L. Martin, assistant dean for recruitment and student development. “We are grateful to have such outstanding and engaged alumni and stakeholders to help guide the college.”

On July 17, the college hosted its virtual event. The event allowed time for stakeholders to meet with department heads, directors and deans about the results of the stakeholder survey. To best accommodate the attendees, the virtual Stakeholder Summit was hosted in two afternoon sessions. Over 150 people attended the Stakeholder Summit.

Each session began with a welcome from Bill Richardson, LSU vice president for agriculture and dean of the College of Agriculture, and Stacia Haynie, LSU executive vice president and provost. Philip Elzer, executive associate dean for the LSU College of Agriculture and department head for the School of Animal Sciences, was then introduced and gave an overview of topics to be discussed in the breakout rooms. Following the welcome, attendees entered virtual breakout rooms with department heads and directors to lead a roundtable-style discussion.

Department heads and directors focused the conversation in each breakout room session around answering five questions. Stakeholders were asked to relate the strengths of their respective departments, how their department could improve, and to provide insight into what areas departments or schools should focus on to be innovative in updating and planning future degree programs. Attendees were also asked if the department or school graduates were workforce ready and to provide examples. They ended each session with a discussion of what their respective departments or schools could do for them. Seven of the departments and schools housed within the LSU College of Agriculture participated in the breakout room sessions.

Department head Michael Salassi led the breakout session for the Department of Agricultural Economics & Agribusiness. He reported that the agricultural business program experienced significant growth between fall 2016 and fall 2019. During that time, there was a 70% growth in incoming first-year students for the agricultural business major. The program continues to grow, seeing an increased diversity in students’ backgrounds.

Salassi also led conversations regarding COVID-19 and course migration to an online platform. Many courses in his department were taught entirely online during fall 2020, and he anticipates that this will lead to the agribusiness program moving part of their degree program online. The department plans to build on this transition over the next years to come.

The Department of Agricultural Economics & Agribusiness stakeholders also lead the discussion on adding additional curriculum related to food industry management. Currently, the department offers an agribusiness concentration in food industry management.

The Department of Agricultural & Extension Education & Evaluation breakout session was led by Michael Burnett, department head. During this session, stakeholders expressed interest in the department, exploring a five-year degree program model that would allow students to obtain both their bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Stakeholders also drove the conversation toward exposing students to urban agriculture, such as food production in urban areas and hydroponics. Incorporating technologies that are currently being used in classrooms were also a conversation topic.

Philip Elzer led the breakout session for the School of Animal Sciences. Elzer referenced an 8.9% increase in student admissions, with 449 students admitted for fall 2020. Reproduction and muscle biology have successfully received program funding through grants and have larger pending grants with the National Institutes of Health and the United States Department of Agriculture. Stakeholders expressed the desire to add faculty with food safety and traceability expertise.

Some stakeholders were critical of how the school was going to condense their concentrations down to three. Elzer mentioned that many of their previous concentrations were in meat science and judging. Students can now do both, so they are not limited to one course of curriculum. Students can still take electives in different concentrations and are not limited when gaining exposure in different areas.

Department head Michael Stout led the breakout session for the Department of Entomology. This session started their conversation by discussing how college recruiters have had a strong presence statewide in Louisiana, and, in turn, this has increased the involvement of alumni. The Department of Entomology is working on reorganizing its curriculum and creating an entomology undergraduate degree program. The department is currently raising awareness and trying to attract potential students.

When asked if the LSU AgCenter and Department of Entomology were responsive enough to Louisiana's research needs, the stakeholders felt that they stayed on top of issues as they arose and were actively working on improvements and solutions for the department.

Interim director Allen Rutherford led the School of Nutrition and Food Sciences breakout session. One stakeholder expressed how, despite the negative impacts of COVID-19, he sees a lot of potential in the forced pivot to a virtual space — claiming that in higher education they often see second-rate remote access to degree programs. The school should use this as a strength to help further reach people who might not be able to relocate or have restrictions that cause them not to be physically onsite. Additionally, this could potentially help with dietetic internships.

Another stakeholder expressed how the School of Nutrition & Food Sciences was much smaller when she was an LSU student. The school has evolved and requested support in developing a student dietetic association.

Stakeholders expressed concern over how to best equip students in the area of food safety, as there have been a lot of industry recalls over the last few years. While LSU does have a laboratory course on food safety, they expressed interest in growing this course at the graduate level.

Don La Bonte led discussion for the School of Plant, Environmental & Soil Sciences. Several courses have been added as core science courses, which has boosted the enrollment in their classes. The school is focusing on adding and redesigning several of their concentrations. The school’s new medicinal plants program has gained momentum. The school would like to continue to boost momentum in enrollment in the program. The school has also started a new introduction to crop production course.

Michael Kaller, professor and coordinator of undergraduate programs led the breakout session for the School of Renewable Natural Resources. He shared that watershed sciences will be an additional concentration offered. This will be the 10th concentration offered by the school. Wildlife ecology is currently the largest concentration, drawing attraction from pre-veterinary medicine students, as well as students interested in wildlife conservation and management.

While the wildlife ecology major continues to grow, some of the other concentrations offered by the school are declining in enrollment numbers. Kaller feels that this is because more students focus on the wildlife ecology concentration and not the other concentrations offered by the School of Renewable Natural Resources. Kaller noted that there had been an increase in the diversity of the students entering the school, especially with students coming from diverse backgrounds, including a large increase in students from urban areas.

At the end of the breakout room session, attendees were brought back to the main session. Richardson concluded the event and gave stakeholders a summary of the next steps in the strategic planning process.

As the college moves forward, the feedback provided by our stakeholder groups will be essential to planning efforts. The college hopes to make the stakeholder event an annual program to share updates on the college's progress and continue to use the feedback of our key stakeholders as drivers to help us go beyond the goals set in the strategic plan.

By Annabelle Stokes