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Combined School Save Money, Bolsters Future

Posted by cahnrs.webteam | April 29, 2011

Friday, April 29, 2011 Capital Press, The West’s Ag Weekly, By Matthew Weaver

Denise Smith typically spends her mornings in Pullman and her afternoons in Moscow, Idaho. As director of the combined School of Food Science at Washington State University and the University of Idaho, Smith is reconciling the business practices of the two institutions, which are roughly nine miles apart and face each other across the state border. Her goal is to make the program seamless. “Really, it’s for us to appear like one big program,” she said.

The school has 23 faculty members at the two universities and includes the WSU Pilot Plant and Creamery in Pullman and the Food Technology Center in Caldwell, Idaho.

The merger of UI’s Department of Food Science and Toxicology and WSU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition took place in 2008 as a budget-cutting measure. Universities around the nation are looking at combining programs to save money as recession-driven cuts shrink their budgets. But the added benefit of the merger may ultimately outweigh the money it saves, administrators say. John Hammel, dean of the University of Idaho’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, said it’s still early for the combined school, with the bulk of work devoted to preparing for the arrival of Smith as full-time director. He views the work so far as planting a seed that needs to be nurtured. By combining resources, the school is better able to compete for research and grant funding. “What it gives you is synergy in moving things forward,” he said. “The integration of the two units into one brings about a more critical core. It’s really building for the future.”

Originally a professor and head of the UI department from 2000 to 2006, Smith has been director of the merged school since November. “This is a grand experiment we’re provided the opportunity to undertake because we have two universities in very close proximity to one another,” said Dan Bernardo, dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences. Merging the schools allows for a saving in administrative costs and avoiding duplication of positions or research resources shared by the two states, Bernardo said.

The schools shared undergraduate courses across state lines for several years, and the schools felt they could create a similar synergy in extension and research. With the merger, the schools cover a wider region, no longer confined by state lines, Smith said. Faculty members offer their services in both states. For example, a new dairy faculty member position will be funded through the WSU Creamery but work in both Washington and Idaho.

The merged food science program has its advantages, Smith said. “We’ve become a much bigger player on the national front,” she said. That helps attract faculty, funding and interest more companies in interviewing graduates, she said. There are currently about 79 undergraduate majors and 50 graduate students, numbers that Smith expects to increase. The school works with entrepreneurs, processors, producers and consumers on food safety, product development and other enterprises.

Jay Astle, sales manager with Univar USA and a member on the board of directors of the Idaho Milk Processors Association, said the merger increases the possibilities available to the agriculture industry in both sates. “The two schools together are much strong than separate,” he said. His association worked with UI’s program for outreach an training, Astle siad.

Astle said he hopes to see the school work even more closely with industry and help students find jobs in the region. “There a are plenty of opportunities here,” he said. Steve Vernon, food research and development manager at Simplot Inc., said he was pleased with the seamlessness of the transition.

The merger provides companies like Simplot with access to more students interested in pursuing careers in food science in the region. There are better retention possibilities when attracting students who come to like the region where they attend school, Vernon said. “Now there’s enough critical mass there when you combine those students,” he said.