The Next Decade for UArizona, A Conversation
A native of New Zealand, Dr. Shane C. Burgess, has worked around the world as a practicing veterinarian and scientist. Currently, the University of Arizona Vice President for the Division of Agriculture, Life and Veterinary Sciences, and Cooperative Extension, and Charles-Sander Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Dr. Burgess’ areas of research expertise include cancer biology, virology, proteomics, immunology, bioinformatics and computational biology.
The division has a total budget of $142 million with over 3,400 students and nearly 1,400 employees. UArizona has been ranked as the top-performing university in the world in water resources. Its master’s degree program in Agricultural and Resource Economics recently was ranked as the 11th best M.S. in Economics in the United States, and US News and World Report ranked UArizona’s programs in plant and animal science as #22 internationally.
Under Dr. Burgess’ leadership, the division launched the Yuma Center of Excellence in Desert Agriculture and the Gary and Barbara Pasquinelli Career Center.
To foster student success and meet workforce demands, Burgess has overseen the addition of eight undergraduate degrees: Applied Biotechnology, Biosystems Analytics and Technology, Fashion Industry Science and Technology, Food Safety, Nutrition and Food Systems, Personal and Financial Family Planning, Precision Nutrition and Wellness, and Agricultural Systems Management (UA Yuma).
He guided the development of online degree programs in CALS, and one of the university’s two global campuses in China, which offers joint bachelor’s degrees in applied biotechnology, environmental science and plant sciences.
Burgess also led the last chapter in establishing UArizona’s highly innovative College of Veterinary Medicine and served as its interim dean.
In 2015, CALS completed a donor-funded $1.9 million remodel of the Forbes building lobby. The project celebrated the building’s 100th year by becoming the embodiment of the college’s commitment to professionalizing student support and focusing on the outcome of graduate employment, and not simply degrees, through Career and Academic Services. The additions of the Gary and Barbara Pasquinelli Career Center and Perricone Family Academic Advising Center were cornerstones to the Forbes remodel under Burgess.
A “first-generation student,” Burgess graduated with distinction as a veterinarian in 1989 from Massey University, New Zealand. He has worked in and managed veterinary clinical practices in Australia and the United Kingdom, with services in horses, farm animals, pets, wild and zoo animals, and emergency medicine and surgery. He did a radiology residency at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia, where he co-founded Perth’s first emergency veterinary clinic concurrently, and he has managed aquaculture facilities in Scotland. He did his Ph.D. in virology, immunology and cancer biology, conferred by the University of Bristol Medical School, U.K. while working full time outside of the academy between 1995 and 1998.
Burgess volunteered to work in the U.K. World Reference Laboratory for Exotic Diseases during the 2001 U.K. foot and mouth disease crisis, where he led the diagnosis reporting office for the Office of Prime Minister Tony Blair. He was awarded the Institute for Animal Health Director’s Award for Service.
In 2002, Burgess joined Mississippi State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine as an assistant professor. He was recruited from Mississippi State as a professor, an associate dean of the college and director of the Institute for Genomics, Biocomputing and Biotechnology to lead the UArizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2011.
Burgess is honored to lead the University of Arizona Division of Agriculture, Life and Veterinary Sciences, and Cooperative Extension as they advance their mission as a land-grant university by preparing students to be leaders and job creators, researching solutions to society's biggest challenges, and bringing the science of the university to the families and communities of Arizona.
I first interviewed Dr. Burgess in October 2011 for Arizona Farm Bureau’s Arizona Agriculture publication. Today, we chat about the next decade in his division at UArizona.
Arizona Agriculture: In 2011, I asked you to describe your work and team philosophy. You’d described engagement as a key theme to your team philosophy. In this last decade of your leadership talk about how you’ve made application of this and what do you think, if anything, needs to be added to the mix in our modern era?
Burgess: The first component is engaging with those for whom the university works. A great example is the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), which our stakeholders, including many from the Arizona Farm Bureau, really wanted. We needed to identify where the key issues lay, and where the key support needed to come from. It was only because we had extremely engaged and incredibly talented people, working together as a team, that the CVM came to fruition.
In the University of Arizona Division of Agriculture, Life and Veterinary Sciences, and Cooperative Extension, the key to engagement is to enable people to do the best job they can by giving them the autonomy to do so. That means we needed to allow people to be innovative, and move the money to where the action is, meaning out of central control and into the academic units in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and into the counties in the Cooperative Extension system. I believe strongly that those who will deal with the consequences of decisions, and who are accountable for delivering on our mission, need to have the decision-making authority and this includes over money.
I think we also need to be able to let people define what would be the best work environment for them and their colleagues. We always can do more. This is a never-ending process, and we cannot ever forget that engagement is key; that people are involved with organizations because of the people they work with day-to-day. I need to ensure we can make the environment, for ourselves, our students, our stakeholders, our partners, the best it can be under the providing circumstances and the rules we live under.
Arizona Agriculture: Describe to us what’s been most exciting and rewarding for you in this last decade with UArizona.
Burgess: Getting to know our employees, our stakeholders, our partners, everybody we are involved within this incredibly diverse state. There hasn’t been a year that I haven’t learned as much as the year preceding it; our division and university are so broad and so impactful and so evolving that there’s always an amazing thing to find out every time I look around or I talk to someone. After about 150,000 Arizona road miles, everything I see is as exciting as it was when I first arrived.
Arizona Agriculture: The next obvious question involves the coming decade? With your team in place, what’s your hope for the next 10 years?
Burgess: Arizona has some incredible opportunities because it can be central to the solutions for the many challenges the world is facing. The Division of Agriculture, Life and Veterinary Sciences, and Cooperative Extension is positioned to make a contribution as important as any we’ve made in our past 137 years. Because we cover so many areas that impact people, at the state and city level but especially in the rural parts of the state, including human wellness, the bioeconomy, natural resources, future agriculture, food security, and much more, we can have a real and positive effect.
Just as important, we will continue to provide incredible graduates who are going out now and are being more competitive for jobs than they’ve ever been. They’re leading the way in embracing opportunities that didn’t even exist when they started going to college.
Arizona Agriculture: While we touched on it in the last conversation article of a decade ago, let’s talk about the balance between university-based research and practical production advances for Arizona agriculture. While we can claim lots of success in this balance, where do we need to go from here?
Burgess: I think we need to continue along the path we’re on and have been since we started higher education in Arizona. The U.S. government set up an incredible public education system in 1862 through the Land Grant Act, created Experiment Stations in 1887 with the Hatch Act, and then the Cooperative Extension system was codified in the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 to ensure university knowledge, advances and inventions impacted the private sector powering the country. In the late 1800s, our predecessors’ focus was of course agriculture because that was such a massive part of the economy, employing more than 20 percent of the counted population. Today just more than one-half of one percent of the U.S. population is employed in agriculture. Agriculture is as important to the economy as ever and it also spun off a massive new economy called the “bioeconomy,” which is now worth over $1 trillion to the U.S. economy and directly employs ten times more Americans than agriculture. We need to keep developing the bioeconomy and growing our global preeminence in agriculture that is critical to Arizona.
This is a formula that works. We can’t afford to just build on our heritage — we need to double down on it. All our primary economy sectors have always embraced new technology. I think the challenge we have today is that there are so many voices in the room, and we need to ensure that we have an organized system to make sure that the new ideas and new technologies are able to be tested at our Land Grant Universities so that they can be rapidly implemented in the pragmatic private sector, the Yuma Center for Excellence in Desert Agriculture is a prime example.
Arizona Agriculture: How do we compare to other land-grant universities?
Burgess: My answer is that you should tell me how we are doing. The Land Grant Universities work for the state they’re in, and I’m always open to hearing what we should do better. How do we compare to our Land Grant University peers in other states? Our reality is that we are part of Arizona’s competition with other states to hire the very best people for the state and we do need to have the funding to do so. Nationwide, the Land Grant Universities objectively do, and always have done, a phenomenal job for their states and the nation. I aspired 10 years ago that if such a ranking could ever rationally be done that we would be amongst the very top. That’s why we have our foundational strategic intent of being the most sought-after place to be a part of.
Arizona Agriculture: What makes us unique?
Burgess: If “us” means the state of Arizona, and its primary production industries, then I would say that if not unique we are amongst an incredibly special group that includes an incredible diversity of plant and animal products, as well as a mining sector that will become even more important as we move into newer economies, as well as being a major tourist economy. We work in all these sectors.
Our engagement in the agricultural sector is well-established. Our division is involved in two of three parts of mining — we aren’t involved in the most obvious part, extraction, but our graduates and our faculty are heavily involved in the front-end work for a mine to be established, and all of the back-end work to remediate the mine and its tailings so that the people who live in that area can live safely forever after a mine closes.
Tourism is the other key component. We are a natural resources state, and of course one of Arizona’s Five C’s is climate. Really, that’s a synonym for everything we do with tourism. And tourism in Arizona really cannot be separated from the management of the natural resources all around us whether it’s our watersheds, our ski areas, or the Grand Canyon or hunting or birding or many other things that people do, from primary production which is ranching. It’s ranchers who are also land stewards. Arizona is a significant agricultural state, we are the country’s salad bowl in the winter, and a net exporter of food to the rest of the United States.
I see us as a nutrition state; we produce a diverse range of food that is good for us, a key to our wellness. I think we really are unique and leading in all of these areas of our primary economy, and we should embrace this because it provides a plethora of economic opportunities.
Arizona Agriculture: What’s the next big thing, if it’s fair to ask about the next big thing?
Burgess: Rationally, the next big thing is going to be defined by the private sector, and we must see where it’s going. The Arizona Board of Regents last year defined the next big thing as the New Economy Initiative, which is around incredible job growth in Arizona.
I think our division’s contributions to that initiative are going to be in two areas: the first is in the bioeconomy, including things such as introducing new technologies into our agricultural production systems, to our farmers and ranchers, but also new processes which give our farmers and ranchers more scope to generate a greater margin of what they produce and be less reliant as price takers and to be price setters. One enormous opportunity is to take what are now waste streams and costs to primary producers and find and identify technologies that will solve our largest environmental challenges by providing mechanisms by which these waste streams can be converted into high-value products.
I think this will extend into technologies that will be of direct benefit in human medicine, as we already do and have done to a greater and greater extent over the decades. We also need to be a part of driving the professionalization of what is the world’s $5 trillion wellness industry. That’s why we launched the School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness. There are so many questions around human wellness, but if the pandemic taught us anything, human wellness is fundamental to everything we do and everything we think about.
Arizona Agriculture: What’s Arizona agriculture’s most important issues from the perspective of the land-grant university?
Burgess: First, not forgetting that a nation’s security is built on its ability to feed itself. Next is supporting other key aspects of our primary economic sector, including finding the energy we need to be self-sufficient. As a society to ensure we don’t forget these aspects of our higher education system which are the provenance of the Land Grant Universities. This was clear in the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Land Grant Universities into being; this led to the U.S. becoming an economic and military superpower, and so long as we continue investment in our Land Grant Universities, it will lead to the U.S. leading the world into a sustainable future in all that sustainability means.
Arizona Agriculture: What keeps you awake at night?
Burgess: It’s not the very real challenges that Arizona faces, for example the food-water-energy nexus in our state — although these are very real and serious — because I have no doubt that between the universities and the private sector, we will identify sustainable solutions.
What keeps me up at night is ensuring that we can deliver on our vision of being the most sought-after place to be a part of, and therefore deserving of the support of not just our stakeholders and our parents and our students but primarily of our employees, whether they are faculty or staff or our designated campus colleagues because we depend on them absolutely.
Arizona Agriculture: What would you tell our aspiring students pursuing careers in agriculture?
Burgess: There are two kinds of students who can pursue careers in agriculture. The first is the tiny minority who genuinely understand what agriculture is. The second is a vast majority who have a purpose that is directly in agricultural production, or something closely related and often around other associated natural resource areas. What I would say is that there are tremendous opportunities in our food, fiber, fuel, and bioeconomy industries for which any one of CALS’ 23 degrees will prepare them to be highly employable, to be able to create growth in the economy and have an impact and enable them to embrace whatever challenges or opportunities will be thrown at them in life.
Arizona Agriculture: Why should students go to UArizona?
Burgess: The primary thing about going to a university is the environment you’re in.
Our traditional students, who come to us straight from high school, are making the transition from childhood to young adulthood. And the environment at the University of Arizona, because of where it’s placed in the state, because of the size of the city it’s in, because of its campus and its people and the academic and personal support that they will receive from admittance to graduation — and beyond — is an exceptional environment for this growth to happen.
For those who don’t fit into this demographic, the special things about the environment at University of Arizona transfer into our online programs and our distance programs, and I would say proudly, led by our college and the sense of family and support and the belief that if you matriculate into the University of Arizona then we need to do our best to work with you and ensure that you’ll graduate in a timely and cost-effective manner.
Arizona Agriculture: What message do you wish to convey for Arizona Farm Bureau’s farm and ranch members?
Burgess: My gratitude to them. I just want to say thank you for your support for everything we’ve achieved together over the past decade.
The Arizona Farm Bureau’s farm and ranch members have provided a vision for Arizona since it was a territory. Their ancestors coalesced and decided the territory needed higher education, and ever since their support for higher education has been paramount. In the past decade, I’ve been blessed to have that support, including making me think better and harder about our ideas and how they affect Arizona.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Arizona Agriculture.