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Cornell’s Helene Dillard named dean of agricultural and environmental sciences

November 20, 2013

Alumna returns home

Video (10 min 2 sec)

Videography by Joe Proudman, interview by Pat Bailey

Helene Dillard, a plant disease expert, associate dean and head of Cooperative Extension at Cornell University, has been named the new dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

Dillard, a native Californian and UC Davis alumna, will on Jan. 27 assume leadership of the college, which is ranked among the very top agricultural and environmental research institutions in the world.

“Helene Dillard is both an accomplished scientist and a highly skilled administrator,” said UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi.  “She has been a strong supporter of fundamental research and, through her own educational and research efforts, has demonstrated a commitment to solving practical societal problems, especially through Cooperative Extension and its service to agriculture, the environmental community and the general public.”

Ralph Hexter, provost and executive vice chancellor at UC Davis, noted that Dillard is stepping into the dean’s position at a pivotal time.

“Phenomenal challenges related to global climate change and food production face the research and higher-education community,” Hexter said.  “I know that the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences will continue to rise under Dr. Dillard’s leadership to equip California and the nation to meet these challenges.”

In her new position, Dillard will be the chief academic and administrative leader for UC Davis’ founding college, home to 15 departments focusing on the agricultural, environmental and human sciences.  

The College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ achievements are reflected in some of the campus’s lead rankings. For example, UC Davis this year was ranked No. 1 in the world for teaching and research in the area of agriculture and forestry by QS World University Rankings, widely considered one of the most influential international university rankings providers. And, according to ScienceWatch.com, UC Davis ranked first among national universities in the number of faculty papers published and cited by other researchers in the fields of agriculture, ecology and the environment, entomology, food science and nutrition, and plant and animal sciences.

The college includes 330 faculty members, 800 staff, 5,800 undergraduate students in 29 majors, and 1,000 graduate students in 45 graduate groups and programs. It also has numerous institutes and research centers, including the Agricultural Sustainability Institute, the Foods for Health Institute and the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.

“The opportunity to serve as the next dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences is an honor, and I am humbled to join this community,” Dillard said. “Renowned for excellence in cutting-edge research, and innovative teaching and outreach, UC Davis faculty, staff and students lead the way in initiatives that address the key societal challenges inherent in issues of food production and food security, sustainable and healthy living, climate change and environmental stewardship.

“I am excited to build upon this legacy as well as foster continuing and further collaborations that develop solutions to the grand challenges and opportunities that we, as a global community, face,” she said.

Her new appointment at UC Davis brings Dillard full circle, in many respects.  Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, she received her bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley in 1977. She continued her studies at UC Davis, where she earned a master’s degree in soil science in 1979 and a doctoral degree in plant pathology in 1984.

She recalls that her passion for Cooperative Extension began when, as a graduate student, she worked with Salinas Valley growers and extension specialists on solving the problem of “lettuce drop,” a disease caused by the fungus Sclerotinia minor.

Upon graduating from UC Davis, she joined the faculty of the Department of Plant Pathology at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y., a position that allowed her to devote half of her time to research and half to extension responsibilities for vegetable crops. She was promoted to associate professor at Cornell in 1990 and to full professor in 1998.

Dillard was named associate director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension in 2001 and advanced to the director’s position in 2002.

She currently oversees 1,700 employees and an annual system budget of approximately $120 million. Since assuming the director’s position, she has strengthened the relationship between Cooperative Extension and the central university and worked to enhance ties with commodity groups, agricultural agencies and other groups that work regularly with Cooperative Extension. And, she guided the creation of a new strategic plan and rebranding effort for Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Since 2002, she also has served as associate dean of Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and College of Human Ecology. Her responsibilities as a scientist and academic leader have taken her around the world, including to China, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

Throughout her administrative career, she has continued her research program, which focuses on the biology, ecology and management of a wide variety of fungal diseases in vegetable crops. Her major research projects have examined fungal diseases of beans, tomatoes and corn, as well as cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables.

This year, Dillard received the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Outstanding Faculty award at Cornell and the New York Farmers Medal from the New York Farmers Association. In 2008, she was named a National Women of Color STEM All Star, in recognition of her accomplishments related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. She was named a fellow of the American Phytopathological Society in 2006.

Dillard is an avid fisher and particularly enjoys catch-and-release fly-fishing with her husband, Victor, and their college-age son Jamar. 

Her appointment culminates a nearly yearlong selection process that involved extensive input from across the campus and beyond. The campus recruitment advisory committee, chaired by School of Veterinary Medicine Dean Michael Lairmore and co-chaired by Professor of Animal Science Joy Mench, was also advised by an external advisory committee co-chaired by California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross and Howard-Yana Shapiro, global director for plant science and external research at Mars Inc. and an adjunct plant sciences professor at UC Davis.

Dillard steps into the position formerly held by Neal Van Alfen, who served as dean from 1999 until August 2012, when he returned to his faculty position in the Department of Plant Pathology. Associate Dean Mary Delany, a distinguished avian geneticist and professor in the Department of Animal Science, has served as interim dean while a national search was conducted for a permanent dean.

About UC Davis

For more than 100 years, UC Davis has been one place where people are bettering humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the state capital, UC Davis has more than 33,000 students, over 2,500 faculty and more than 21,000 staff, an annual research budget of over $750 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100 undergraduate majors in four colleges — Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science. It also houses six professional schools — Education, Law, Management, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.

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