For many college students whose idea of food is Pop-Tarts and Ramen Noodles, agriculture colleges may not hold much appeal, conjuring up images of cows and crops. Those who know about agriculture colleges today know that they are often on the cutting edge of biotechnology, environmental studies, and newer programs like golf-course management. To emphasize that, a number of colleges of agriculture have changed their name. But the University of Nebraska at Lincoln last week -- to the delight of some alumni -- backed away from a name change.
In 1982, Washington State University’s College of Agriculture become the College of Agriculture and Home Economics. Then, in 2003, it became the weightier College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Science Administration. “We have people studying human nutrition merged with food science, understanding human metabolism at a molecular level,” said James Cook, the retiring dean. “It had to be changed to reflect where we’re at today.” Cook added that agriculture is about “managing soil, water, air, and biodiversity. We need science in the name because that’s what we do: science.”
In recent years, with the explosion of biotechnology, agriculture, along with medicine, has sprinted to prominence in the sciences.
“We have a $40 million building dedicated to biotech, and we’re working on a brand new $70 million building for plant and animal genomics,” said Wayne Banwart, the assistant dean for academic programs in the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The college expanded the name beyond simply agriculture in 1995. "We didn’t take agriculture out of the name, but now it emphasizes the sciences and environmental aspect, which are already in agriculture, but ‘agriculture’ doesn’t trigger that thought,” Banwart said.
Last week's announcement at Nebraska College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources followed several years in which the institution had been considering names devoid of an agriculture reference. Declining enrollment, from almost 1,900 in 1980, to 1,530 in 1995, to 1,222 last year, prompted the consideration. “There was a time many CASNR students came from farms and ranches and returned there after graduating. That has changed,” wrote Steve Waller, dean of CASNR, in an open letter  in 2002, explaining the reasons for a possible name change. “Data suggest some people associate the word agriculture only with production agriculture -- farming and ranching -- when the word and this college encompass volumes more.” College officials, who decided to leave the name as is, said some alumni worried that a name change meant a shift away from the institution’s dedication to traditional agriculture. Most, however, said they would accept a change so long as “agriculture” stayed in the name.
Washington State's Cook said some alumni expressed concern about the name change there. “I can sympathize with that,” he said. “I helped my dad drive horses in Minnesota in the 1940s. I’ve seen us go from the dust bowl to an environmental footprint that’s nothing compared to the 1940s, and I’m very proud of that, and it all comes under the name of agriculture.” But, “not everybody in the next generation will be able to relate to that,” Cook said, adding that it was important not to remove “agriculture” from the name entirely. “The problem now is our name is so long you can’t remember,” he joked. “The president is always asking, ‘Jim, what’s the name of your college again?’”
John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said the challenge of attracting students to Nebraska is much bigger than a name. “Because of our international trade policy, we have to sell our products at the cost of the lowest producer in the world,” Hansen said. “There would be more students if there were more economically viable opportunities back home. Mom and dad used to say, ‘get your education so you can come back here and farm well.’ Now they say, ‘get your education so you can get out of here.’”
Foy Mills, the chair of the Agriculture and Environmental Science Department at Abilene Christian University, formerly the Agriculture Department, said that, because of the increasing “urban interface,” agriculturalists have become more specialized. “We have fewer people with a production agriculture background,” he said. “We had to explain to people,” when the name changed, “we weren’t abandoning agriculture, but we have to help people understand the broader scope.”
Administrators who were around during name changes said a new moniker is only a small part of what it takes to attract students. Getting people to visit campus, they said, is increasingly important. “One of our own recruiters toured our college,” Cook said. “He said to me, ‘I was surprised, you work with DNA!”