One-on-one With Fred Cholick

New dean embraces challenge. Bill Spiegel

Published on: Nov 1, 2004

Kansas State University hired Fred Cholick as Dean of the College of Agriculture and Director of K-State Research and Extension in April. Cholick, 54, grew up on a diversified crop and livestock farm near Portland Oregon. He received an undergraduate degree in agronomy from Oregon State University, a Masters in agronomy and Ph.D. in agronomy and breeding/genetics from Colorado State University.

He comes to Manhattan from South Dakota State University, where he held several posts, most recently Dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences. Cholick, who succeeded Marc Johnson in August, becomes the 18th Dean of K-State's College of Agriculture. He and his wife, Cathy, have two children.

Our interview took place in September.

Kansas Farmer: You had been at South Dakota State in one position or another for more than two decades. Why the change of scenery?

Fred Cholick: I was struck by K-State’s institutional culture and how the University strives for excellence. The students bragged about K-State. I was impressed with [students'] leadership. That's what we're all about: developing a human resource for the next generation. Also, I was impressed with the importance of agriculture and natural resources in Kansas. Finally, I was getting too comfortable in my present job. I had things I needed to do, but this was a new challenge, a way to reinvigorate myself.

KF: What do you consider the strengths by which K-State's College of Agriculture and K-State Research and Extension are nationally known?

FC: Its national leadership in biosecurity, agricultural security and food safety. The Plant Disease Diagnostic Network, where we deal with a secure food and fiber network and food safety issues, was pre-9/11. Secondly, K-State has tremendous commitment to undergraduate education while maintaining strong Research and Extension. It's easy to get out of balance. The third area is integration. For example, we've developed institutes where we bring together expertise from multiple disciplines to solve problems.

KF: You are director of K-State Research and Extension plus Dean of the College of Agriculture. How do you divide your time between three disciplines?

FC: I have three excellent associate directors. Their job is to be the chief executive officers of those operations. They manage the budget, the portfolio, the projects and curriculum. My job is the chief operating officer.

KF: The industry of agriculture is much more than production agriculture. How does the university adapt curriculum to reach out of non-production agriculture careers?

FC: We need to change the curriculum to look at allied careers within agriculture. We need to infuse into the curriculum more entrepreneurship and skills. We must broaden students' thinking into more of a global perspective and how you address those issues. It really all goes down into the entire motto for the college: "Knowledge for Life".

KF: On the local level, there is significant interest for counties to combine and become districts. Is this a trend that will continue?

FC: Kansas is the envy of a lot of states because counties support local Extension to the tune of about $17 million per year. The question is, how do we more effectively and efficiently use our human resources to serve our purpose? Districting is a way for us to more effectively utilize our human resources and deliver greater programs at the county and multi-county level. It is a means to increase the expertise of individuals serving the constituents. Will we continue to have agents every county? Yes. They are our connection to communities. But that agent may not be asked to address a livestock issue, for example. That may be another agent sitting in the next county.

KF: Local Extension embraces much more than just agriculture.

FC: Over the years, Kansas, Iowa and South Dakota go 1,2,3 or 3,2,1 in the number of both spouses out of the home with children under 6 years of age. That's a different set of family issues, community issues, youth development issues that we have to address through Extension. That's not just the College of Agriculture or Research and Extension. There are a whole lot of players.

KF: You see a need in Kansas for community development. Will there be a community development specialist in the future?

FC: Throughout Kansas you can see the communities that have pride in themselves. It's a look, whether cleanliness, or flowers on Main Street. Those are communities that will grow. We have to help build that. In this case, I have a vision of where we need to be and where we'll get, I just don't know how to get there yet. There are excellent partners out there; state agencies, federal agencies, commodity groups and economic development boards in communities.

KF: Are you talking about rebuilding rural Kansas?

FC: It's more like revitalizing rural Kansas. The Morrill Act, or Land Grant University Act, was developed in 1862. That same year the Homestead Act was founded to settle the West. It was based on an entrepreneurial spirit and frontier mentality. We have to revitalize that in our communities. Maybe every community won't survive. But those who have the leadership, that understand the value of retaining natural resources, of capturing the entrepreneurial spirit and retaining the brainpower in their youth – they've got a shot. We have to do a certain amount of taking our destiny in our hands.

KF: K-State recently announced it would market Roundup Ready soybeans. Are increased efforts to partner with industry in the Research side forthcoming?

FC: As we partner with industry, it's not only a partnership for us, it's a partnership for them. The RR trait is an excellent example. We have an excellent breeding program with some unique characteristics available to add value, such as protein, oil, composition, and disease resistance. Monsanto has Roundup Ready technology. We have to protect a company's intellectual property and that goes beyond Roundup Ready; it includes drought resistance, food safety, and not just genetically modified organisms. Yet we have to protect our intellectual property, too. We developed that genetic base; there is public investment in that. We must recoup the value of our investment.

KF: The budget has been unkind to K-State's College of Agriculture and Research and Extension. How do you cope with decreasing state funds, while filling an ongoing need for services these disciplines provide?

FC: I'm an optimist with a good dose of realism. I won't let budget be an excuse. There are 44 unfilled staff positions. We're asking the remaining faculty to sprint a marathon. They can't do it. At some point, the system will break. We have prioritized positions and soon will have a list of positions we can fill. That's the number one priority. Plus, I believe we can make a case for more resources. If we develop new knowledge from the Research side, there is an opportunity to get more resources. Commodity groups and the counties have both been fabulous at committing resources to Extension. But those are finite resources. There are additional revenue streams available. Perhaps we partner with industry and make certain there are integrity lines we will not cross. Perhaps we initiate private fundraising, because people give because they see a value for their dollar.

KF: Do you anticipate charging fees for county programs put on by Research and Extension?

FC: I would guess yes. Paying for a program increases the expectation of the receiver. I truly believe that where there is public good, the public should pay for it. But for a lot of reasons, that's not happening, so we're going to have to pace ourselves. What I don't want to do - and I will fight to the end is - if we have someone who can't afford it, we have a fall-back position. We are not going to become elitist.

KF: What would you like readers to know about Fred Cholick?

FC: My door is open, my cell phone is on my business card, and I want to be accessible. Two, I believe in integration based on a philosophy that creativity comes from individuals; productivity comes from individuals working together. Three, I take my job seriously, but I don't take myself too seriously. Four, my integrity is my greatest virtue. My Dad taught me that no one can take away your integrity. You have to give it away. No one can take away the integrity of the College of Agriculture and K-State Research and Extension. We have to give it away. And that is one of our greatest treasures. And five, I'm not an office Dean and Director. I welcome the opportunity to be out. If there are opportunities for readers to get Fred Cholick out and about, I'll be there if my schedule allows.