From the Chair’s Desk . . .

Kent Weigel, Department Chair and Professor in Breeding and Genetics

As you might have heard through the grapevine, Dairy Science is in preliminary discussions with the Department of Animal Sciences regarding a potential merger.  The initial impetus for this discussion was a request by Dean VandenBosch, on recommendation of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Redesign Committee, to consider the pros and cons of an Animal Sciences / Dairy Science merger.  This decision will ultimately be made by the faculty members in the two departments.

Why consider a merger?  There are several potential benefits to the departments, and I will mention two specifically.  First, we already share a building and administrative (financial, human resources, and IT staff), and we cross-list and co-teach our core courses in nutrition, physiology, and genetics, so the two departments are highly interdependent.  Going forward, we may be able to meet the needs of our students and stakeholders more effectively by joint planning and intentional collaboration, rather than working side-by-side and hoping for the best.  Second, and most important in my mind, is the issue of “critical mass” in key disciplines or subject areas.  A perfect example is the area of milk quality, where Dairy Science literally went from an internationally recognized program to no program at all overnight, when Dr. Pamela Ruegg left to become department chair at Michigan State.  This “one-deep” expertise strategy is not sustainable, and we need strong groups of professors in each of the traditional disciplines such as genetics, nutrition, meats, and physiology, as well as emerging areas such as data science and animal welfare.

Why now?  The majority of faculty members in Animal Sciences and Dairy Science were hired in the 1980s, so we are beginning a period of enormous turnover.  As we make decisions about how to position our departments for success over the next thirty years, now is the time to determine whether to do this individually or jointly.

How will our students be impacted if a merger occurs?  Not that much, honestly, at least in the short-term.  Any changes in our undergraduate majors are a few years away, because by rule we cannot change the curriculum requirements for students once they’ve enrolled at UW-Madison.  In the long-term, we will still have a major that serves the needs of science-oriented students with interest in becoming a veterinarian, nutritionist, or reproduction consultant.  Similarly, we will have a major that serves the needs of business-oriented students with interest in careers in dairy management and dairy-related agribusiness roles such as sales, marketing, and finance.  Exact names and course requirements are yet to be determined, but if we do this properly we can meet the needs of our students much more effectively in the future than we do today.

What about our stakeholders?  This is obviously a huge concern, especially for Wisconsin’s $43 billion dairy industry.  Again, if we do this properly, we should be better positioned to meet the needs of our key stakeholders in the future than we are today.  A huge risk, if we decide not to merge, is spreading ourselves too thin by trying to cover all disciplines and all species – neither UW-Madison nor any other land-grant university can do this successfully.  We need to specialize and focus on the things that are most important to Wisconsin, and this strategic planning will take place throughout most of 2019.

What’s the process?  Now that both departments have “decided to try,” by voting to work toward development of a formal merger proposal, the hard work begins.  Five interdepartmental groups have been formed to cover the key issues and decisions.   These working groups will meet biweekly over the next six to eight months to discuss options and strategies, and during the summer we will seek input and feedback from our students, alumni, and stakeholders.  By late fall we hope to pull all of the recommendations into a formal proposal, and if this proposal is approved by both departmental executive committees, it will be submitted to college and campus administrators and governance committees for their review.  The overall process will take 18 to 24 months, so if we ultimately decide to merge, the earliest it will actually occur is mid to late 2020.  We need to be very thorough in our planning and discuss all of the pros and cons both internally and externally, because if we decide to merge we need to get it right.

So, if you’ve made it this far, I hope it gives you a clearer picture of what we’re considering and why.  Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me or other members of our faculty and staff if you have any questions or concerns. We look forward to sharing more concrete plans with you in late summer.