A Conversation about Measurable Outcomes for Agriculture & Arizona's Economy: Shane Burgess

We are now three months into Arizona’s 2014 legislative year (March 2014), and like every year, budget considerations are front and center. This certainly includes what The Arizona Board of Regents, the governing board for the state’s public universities: Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, and the University of Arizona, submits to the Arizona Legislature.  If we in agriculture winnow that down a bit more, we might be somewhat curious as to funding efforts on behalf of the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ bid to bring a veterinary medical program to Tucson. Plus, what of the efforts to boost funding for Cooperative Extension?


At the center of the vet school effort is Shane Burgess, vice provost and dean of the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and a veterinarian. He earned his Veterinary Medicine qualifications in New Zealand, qualifying just after he turned 22. This, plus an effort to prove true outputs for Arizona’s economy may make all the difference in the world as a public institution after multiple occasions has pushed for such a program.


Interestingly, this all comes at the same time that a private college announced their intention to launch a veterinarian school. Midwestern University announced plans in 2012 for a College of Veterinary Medicine in the Phoenix area to open this coming August.


You’ll certainly find distinctions between the programs and in the following Q&A we have Burgess remark on the two programs. Upfront, you discover that he wants a streamlined undergraduate program at U of A. Students who rise to the top from a competitive first-year program in a new School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences would enter a year-round veterinary medical program that would lead to a D.V.M. degree in as little as three additional calendar years. Unique in the states but common in other parts of the world like Burgess’ own experience in New Zealand, the program would allow more Arizona students to pursue veterinary medical degrees, spend fewer years getting that certification and graduate with less than half the average cost vet students incur over the course of their veterinary medical schooling.


Why is this important to Arizona? With both dairy and beef as Arizona’s top two agriculture commodities and a shortage of large-animal veterinarians, especially in the rural counties, we’re facing a growing need for veterinarians in public health, disease research and food safety. “We are one of the most underserved states in the entire country,” says Burgess.


Burgess also explains how students who don’t make the cut for veterinary school would still be able to seek careers in the burgeoning biomedical fields as well as in what he sees as animal industries with a very bright future due to the growing global demand for animal protein.


Arizona Agriculture sat down with Dean Burgess for a frank conversation on what these programs truly mean to Arizona, our economy and the future.


Arizona Agriculture: How are you selling the launch of a Veterinary School program for Tucson’s U of A and Extension funding to the Arizona legislature?


Burgess: First, the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences budget request is only a fraction of the entire Regents’ budget proposal. The entire FY15 Incremental Budget request from the Regents is $107.5 million. Our request, which is part of that, for the two areas we’re talking about is $3.8 million and $4.2 million.


The two requests we have in the budget mainly allow us to hire the people we need, for example, to teach in the new veterinary program and deliver Extension programs to the state. For the veterinary program also calculate that the money we’re requesting will have a return on investment (ROI) of more than two to one every year. So, we’ll return about $8 million for that $4 million we’re requesting every single year in revenues that will come back to the state.


For Cooperative Extension we’re really focusing on the three historically defined and federally legislatively mandated roles in economic development. The whole of Cooperative Extension was begun in 1914 in order to improve the country’s economy. It’s a partnership between the federal government, the states and the counties and the land-grant universities. We’re all putting in something to the effort.


And the point is it is supposed to be a definable return. What I’ve done is look at the definable return and I’ve asked people to do various things. Relating to ROI, the [Cooperative Extension] staff must come out front and clearly articulate what the ROI for the tax payer truly is in terms of dollars, in terms of jobs, and in terms of social impact that’s good for our economy. So, when I talk about dollars it means that our Cooperative Extension people can go to our stakeholders whether they’re farmers, a company like Yulex or others and say “we’ve worked together for a year, here’s the economic impact to you.” The stakeholder should be able to clearly identify the economic impact the Cooperative Extension partnership has had on the project or effort. For example, because of [Cooperative Extension] we’ve improved acreage yields by $100,000. Or, because of you I’ve hired more people because of growth.


So, you asked me how we’re selling the investment in our Veterinary school and Extension - well, we’re absolutely not going to the legislature and saying ‘please give us this amount of money because this is what was cut during the recession and we need to replace these people.’ We have no intention of simply replacing positions that were lost during the recession.


Instead, in both initiatives, we have an advisory council made up of industry experts helping us determine the type of individuals we must hire in order to have a positive economic impact in terms of dollars, jobs or social impacts that will make a difference to everyone’s bottom line.


In the university environment, we’re really good at looking at and explaining our processes. Our scientists are really good at explaining the experiments they did; how many things they measured, what the experiment’s about. In other words, we’re really good when talking process; the processes we use to get from “A” to “B.” But we’re not so good about talking about the outcomes; in other words, ‘What were the results?’ The results might have been, based on the research, that now a company or farmers can do “XYZ” to improve production or yields through a document or circular so our stakeholders can study the material and apply improvements to the business or farm.


Explaining outcomes has not been part of our DNA. We’ve not been good at describing the genuine outcomes that our work has for society - we’ve been a little too humble. And truthfully I think we come by this honestly - we’re a little bit like that throughout agriculture generally. For example, I always talk about Arizona not being an agricultural state but being a nutrition state: The difference between Iowa and Arizona? Iowa grows corn and in Arizona we grow so many diverse crops, basically we grow human nutrition. Overall, if you filled up a shopping cart with products grown in Arizona you’ve got a completely balanced diet. If you fill up a shopping cart in Iowa with Iowa-grown foods you’ve got corn. So the genuine outcome of agriculture in Arizona is balanced nutrition, better industry and a better economy. 


So, additionally, we have to do a better job with the legislature in articulating outcomes. And obviously there is an intersection here between talking about our impact in terms of dollars, jobs and social changes and measurable outcomes and that’s part of the messaging we have to do.


Every single dollar we invest has to have a home in an outcome. In the future, we should never look back and have to say all these dollars never had an outcome.


Arizona Agriculture: How does the farm and ranch community come alongside of you - certainly U of A alums - to help advance this cause?


Burgess: I don’t expect anyone to support any of our programs unless we are genuinely working with our partners to make a better Arizona. I believe both programs do that. The reason I believe this is because we involved all of our stakeholder groups right from the beginning of the process. I think that anybody who knows me knows that I’m open to having conversations and we’ll change our plans to fit the state.


Both of these programs are built to be structured to evolve over time with the state’s changing needs. Both the Vet program and Cooperative Extension can change over time because of the management structures we have in place. That way we can continue to change as the state’s needs change.


Because we have legislators that are willing to listen, we have an opportunity to tell our story. Since many have not been exposed to Arizona’s agriculture industry they simply don’t know. The most important thing our farm and ranch community can do is tell their story in the broader context of the agriculture industry. Truthfully, I’ve never met a legislator that isn’t happy to listen to a rational conversation. So, that means we should be talking; telling our story.


When speaking to your legislator, I’d encourage someone whether or not you are a U of A graduate; U of A is their university and there to help them because we are the land-grant university for the state of Arizona. That’s the first thing anyone needs to know.


U of A is supposed to be working for the state’s economy directly via Cooperative Extension. We are the only university in the state mandated to do so. We’re here to serve the state because of our land-grant status. Our job is to be a mechanism by which the state can grow its economic prosperity.


These two initiatives are directly designed to help the state’s economy, in particular for the agriculture community, to better enable them to run their businesses, make more money, hire more people and have the maximum impact they can in this state.


Much of what we do has a direct impact on the health of the economy, in the urban areas and in the counties. There’s a number of things we do that cross over into urban and rural areas.


Arizona Agriculture: Even if the Regents’ entire budget is approved including what U of A is requesting, how do you keep this vital extension of the land-grant university - Cooperative Extension - relevant to the rural counties?


Burgess: If we get everything we need, what we’re hearing from our stakeholders is where these positions need to go. In the Cooperative Extension package the $3.8 million will be invested around the state including crossover between rural and urban.


The investment is throughout the state and is proportional to state’s population density. If you’re a rancher, you should see some investment here. If you care about 4-H, you should see some investment here; if you’re the nursery industry you should see some investment impacting here; if you’re the wine industry you should see some investment here in things that help your industry grow. There really isn’t an industry that we touch whose stakeholders we haven’t heard from or that we don’t have a plan for how to invest this money across the state for the good of the entire state’s economy. An excellent part of what we do in the college is our department of Agriculture and Natural Resources Economics, these people help us work out where our biggest bang for the buck could be. In the last year one of the things that I’ve done is turn some of the power of this unit in on ourselves and said, “How should we be better using the resources we’ve got for economic impact for the state and if we were to get this new investment what is the biggest bang for our buck statewide.”


Arizona Agriculture: How will U of A’s Vet School be different from Midwestern’s?

Burgess: We are a non-profit public land grant university, with state taxpayer investment, accepting anyone with the ability. We must provide significant needs-based financial aid. Students looking to go to a private school are not usually also interested in going to a flagship state university. Our program and any private program are simply in different markets.
As a land grant university we also focus on Arizona and its economy - we must be responsive and answerable to Arizona’s citizens to continually evolve what we do to best benefit the state. We must have a majority of students from Arizona and we will cost Arizonans less than half of what the private programs that we know of today must charge to break even financially.

I don't know that Midwestern's program is fundamentally different to any other that exists in the U.S. today; I do know, and this was recently confirmed by the American Veterinary Medical Association, that what we plan to do is have many innovations that directly address today’s major problems in veterinary education.  We are focusing our program on Arizona’s, and the nation’s, veterinary skill shortage areas.  We have a unique student selection process; cost less; won’t compete with private practitioners but will invest in their practices; are faster than other programs without compromising veterinary education; and, most importantly, we have built in capacity to continue to evolve as Arizona’s, and our county’s, needs evolve.

Certainly the numbers of students wanting to attend veterinary school in the US is more than big enough to support one flagship public university and one private program in Arizona.