He likes to joke that he was raised on a farm in rural Pike County, out “in the suburbs of Josie, Alabama.””I did all the high-tech jobs like milking the cows and chopping cotton,” says Auburn University President Dr. Ed Richardson just before his playful sarcasm turns into a wistful memory. “It was very manual, very low income, but there was a quality of that life, the character of the people that I’ve always remembered.”Those were the people Richardson had in mind when he envisioned an institute that brings together the College of Agriculture, the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, Alternative Fuels Unit, Water Initiative Unit, and other environmental units.There’s not yet a name for this agricultural super think tank, but until a name is chosen, Richardson refers to it as the Institute of Natural Resources. Whatever it’s finally called, it has already won the approval of the AU Board of Trustees, which approved $3 million in funding for it, and the Alabama Farmers Federation, which bestowed its highest award, the Service to Agriculture Award, upon Richardson at its 85th Annual Meeting in Mobile.The idea for such an initiative — perhaps the most far-reaching reorganization at the university in its 150-year history — came to Richardson in 2004 when he was elevated from his seat on the board to interim president.
His chief mandate at the time was to restore his alma mater’s academic accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools — which he did. But there were other matters that demanded his attention as well — like helping Alabama farmers who continued to struggle even as Auburn drifted from its agricultural mission as a land-grant institution.
The lifestyle he so admired as a youngster was quickly fading, fading not only from Alabama’s rural landscape but also from the hallowed halls of learning at Auburn University.”I watched people in Alabama — my family and others — just doing all they could do and doing without, just hanging on,” Richardson said. “And, I kept saying, ‘What is it we can do? Are there niche markets out there? Are there different crops we can grow? What do we need to do?’ I talked with everybody at Auburn, deans and presidents who had preceded me, and nobody really had much of an answer.”Thinking back to life on campus when he graduated in 1962, Richardson recalled how the College of Agriculture once enjoyed a much larger enrollment, how Extension agents were highly regarded, and how important the university was to a mostly agrarian culture.
But shifting emphases in the College of Agriculture so fragmented and weakened it that the university lost its vision, purpose and responsiveness. “It had lost its imperative, if you will,” says Richardson. Whatever the cause, the land-grant university responsible for educating Alabama’s working class in agriculture and engineering had strayed far from its path.Today, less than 5 percent of Auburn’s 23,300 students are enrolled in agriculture, and that includes the School of Forestry. Throw engineering into that mix, and the figure is only 15 percent.”Auburn changed its vision, and that vision didn’t include agriculture,” Richardson said in a recent interview. “Some people saw that the future was not based on agriculture, but on other, service economy-type jobs. So you saw previous administrations start to move away from that. Some of the programs that were in the College of Agriculture when I was here were moved out to other colleges. I think there just was a de-emphasis because they didn’t see much future there. I believe that was shortsighted, and I hope we have sufficient time to turn it around.”To do that, Richardson says agriculture must be redefined and repackaged in a way that is relevant to a changing world. He believes the Institute of Natural Resources can do just that. He sees the institute as broadening the definition of agriculture, and playing a major role in solving the water, energy and environmental problems of the near future. He sees the possibilities as limitless. It can bring irrigation to Alabama farms, and manage vast water supplies in a century where water could become a commodity more valuable than oil. It can power machinery with biodiesel and ethanol, thereby reducing farmers’ operating costs. It can reduce dependence on foreign oil, thereby creating a stronger, less-vulnerable America. It can build an industry of nature-based tourism that can generate income, revive rural Alabama, and preserve the lifestyle so familiar to innumerable Alabamians.”I think it’ll bring people to a closer awareness of what agriculture means,” said Richardson. “It’s more than just that narrow definition that so many people have today. It’s not just people driving a tractor around and pulling corn and things like this. It’s food supply. It’s economic development. We have to repackage it. I think you are going to see enrollment go up in agriculture once they see that there’s a much broader definition there…. It’s a complex, highly competitive, difficult business, and you have to be smart to survive. That’s why we need a university like Auburn that devotes a good part of its resources to this very part of our economic sector. That’s what I intend to do.”To underscore his commitment, Richardson was to appoint a vice-president for the institute, a position that would report directly to the president.There is, however, no guarantee that president will be Richardson. Although the board of trustees removed the “interim” before his name last September, Richardson said in December that he’ll be stepping down in six to eight months.
The presidential search committee has narrowed its list of candidates to about 15. Richardson doesn’t expect the next president to have a rural background, but he does expect the commitment to agriculture and the institute to remain firm.”Obviously, it would be ideal if we could have found that balance,” he said. “But when you are changing your image, changing the definition, you can’t just go back to the standard leadership although they’re well qualified. It just makes it far more difficult. I think this will allow us to effect the changes that need to be made, and they’re major.”I would imagine that (the institute) would stay because, No. 1, it is pretty obvious of the importance. Two, you have to keep in mind that half of the research dollars for this university are ag-related. So it is a big part of our research initiative. So, I?m hopeful, but we’ll just have to wait and see. I think the board is sensitive to that, and I would think many on the board would want that to occur, but when you hire someone you take your chances, just as they did with me.”