The College of Natural Resources' Dean's Initiative

The Rural System

Draft proposal... a suggestion for Dean Mike Kelly and/or Dr. Dave Trauger

Almost dwarfed by International strife, geopolitical disruptions, budgetary travail, and advancing technology, there remain pressing, massive, diverse natural-resource problems. Solutions are needed now because, even though there has been progress, conditions and the associated problems worsen. It will be fair for future people to receive at least the natural resource base and and its potentials that we have received.

The Land Grant University and the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech, hereinafter the College, seek to do studies, to make discoveries, to add to human knowledge, and to take the next steps to put that knowledge into practice for the good of the citizens of Virginia and elsewhere. The College has had a dynamic, productive program of teaching, studies, and extension for many years. We now believe that there are new stresses, new competitors, new attitude toward science, new technology, new needs for special accountability, and a new budgetary imperative that, when considered together, spawn an important new paradigm related to the mission of the Land Grant College and to work within the College.

I call it the Rural System Initiative. It retains current strengths and creates new opportunities for prospective students, students, faculty, local employees, and graduates. It advances the College onto the front pages of state and national programs of creative and constructive environmentalism, sustainable agriculture, community stabilization, and realistic regional economics. It responds with improvement, to past guests and partners. It seeks new relations with its many, many graduates of the College and its programs of study over the years. It seeks sound working relationships with all others. It works in a variety of changing ways with a not-for-profit corporation integral to the College called Rural System. We hasten to welcome interested faculty, students, and programs of other Colleges, especially the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The Initiative has eight parts. With the help of faculty, students and cooperators, I shall elaborate

  1. The Line
  2. Reflexive teaching
  3. System-targeted studies
  4. Database building
  5. Rural System Tract development
  6. Graduate enhancement
  7. Product and service development
  8. Unification
  9. Powerbase
  10. Feedforward

Over the past decade, the College has been asked to do more old as well as new things and many different things with less money. Problems have increased; demands changed; technology and regulations have presented challenges; numbers of people have increased; and a radical and yet-unappreciated change has occurred in rural and urban dwellers (a 70-30 % to 30-70% reversal). The College has changed its name and regrouped, but major funding changes have not occurred and only minor efficiencies have been realized. Budgeted funds have not kept pace with the economies attempted, with demands, or with opportunities for major advances. Student in crowded classes or out of schedule are fully aware of changes and that attitudes reflect new costs, increased risks, and declining gains. Faculty who are committed to improved natural resource management and improved or sustained life quality, now suspect, based on long-term evidence, that reasonable requests for funding to sustain existing programs or to expand or grasp needed programs will not be heard. They know that few people understand the complex dimensions of studying, explaining, and predicting long-lived trees and their ecological communities and the need for continuous, stable, long-term studies leading to the use of those results.

Since before the emergence of the Land-Grant University concept and that of an Extension Service, there has been an emphasis on teaching, research, and extension or some generalized concept of "outreach," application, service, and relevant use of knowledge. This has been viewed by many in different ways - simply as 3 fingers held up in speeches, 3 arrow-related corners of a triangle, and as a triangle balanced, teetering, on a point near the center of gravity among the topics located at the corners of the triangle. New pressures from regions of education-quality, educational technology, energy-shortage risks, shifting tax bases, changing student numbers, new electronic modes of publication, and a changing work force (people who seem to give more emphasis to medical care than to gross income) now have reshaped that image. The 3-finger model is hardly recognizable. Simple analogies and forms no longer are relevant.

The Initiative that I propose seeks to affiliate the College closely with a conglomerate to advance a modern program of university-based natural resource management and to achieve for Virginians and others the benefits and services they desire (and yet hardly realize exist) from their public and private-land resources. That corporation is called Rural System. It seeks to provide citizens a payoff from their prior tax investments in the College. It does not seek additional funding, only to use well that presently invested by the citizens. It requires no new tax base, no new organization. It allows … certainly encourages … the College when set adrift without adequate "food or water" to fend for itself and to seek new ways to recruit top students, to help finance students' education, to compete with colleagues throughout the nation for the means to do studies, to stabilize funding for programs in the wildllands and rural lands at least long enough for advances and discoveries to be made, and to make those discoveries known and then…a major difference…to make the results useful ...soon.

The Initiative is for the entire College and all of its friends, patrons, and cooperators. It is an opportunity, not a requirement. Many will see it as an exciting challenge. There will be some unwilling to participate and they are not likely to see disadvantages from the Initiative in their daily work. Others who do participate will experience personal advantages as well as likely financial advantages. These financial advantages are being discussed and are believed to be substantial. One of the underlying premises of the Initiative is that landowners, major participants, and users of the great outdoors should experience evident financial incentives for optimal land- and water-use practices and behavior. That premise operates within the College as well. Because of the recognition, the Initiative will some day be seen as a major change, an alternative for motivating and then achieving major resource management improvement over a large area for a long time.

Here are the 11 parts of the Initiative. They are evidently (and by design) strongly related:

1. The Line

I believe that a new pattern is needed and we need to begin to test and develop a solution system for the near future. I call it the Rural System Line (hereinafter the Line). It is a cascade over many years. It includes providing meaningful work for high school junior and seniors during summers; co-op-like work for students in the College (work-study on campus); Master of Science and Ph.D. degree projects as requested and contracted with Rural System (especially for those having done co-op work); and contracted post-graduate employment for at least one year to test, prove, and make operational within the enterprise the thesis or project results from the contract. The Line starts before the university entrance for the willing student and continues throughout, even to one year after graduate programs.

A time line here suggests how The Line provides qualified youth of the region opportunities to engage in quality work experience on System projects. After work on contract research projects, students integrate their profit-producing concepts and thesis/dissertations products into the enterprise during the next year, then decisions are made about future work.

The Line works with youth of the area, reducing their losses to "the outside" and increasing the high payoffs from early involvement in career choice, from active participation in desirable projects, and from having a meaningful base from which to work while in college. Funds for the line are gained from public and foundation projects, parent support, and proportions of student wages invested in The Initiative. No more "dusty books on the shelf" from our research contract work. Students have a job when they finish school and have incentives for good work for they know their projects must "work." Of course, after project completion, they are free to pursue work elsewhere. Rural System will try to retain superior workers. Research opportunities will be available to others who are not involved with The Line. Diverse planned experiences prevent parochial thought and "in-breeding" of ideas and approaches.

2. Reflexive Teaching

Students teach students; juniors teach sophomores. Experience is valued, conserved, and used for advances. "You learn best what you must teach," is a statement that need not be ignored. We move to get students into the field, into practical situations, with graduates, and with those currently employed. We offer challenge courses and encourage challenge exams. We encourage discontinuous programs with distance learning as the dominant way to diversify experience and meet the changing economic demands of families, corporations, and health and disability needs. Term papers become stores of knowledge used by students and graduates. The criterion for discussion is predominantly cost per desired unit of significantly changed behavior. Knowledge is built for our own graduates, giving them a special edge. New mastery of the library with continuing life-long union with the Virginia Tech Library is built. The resources of the educational communities of the University are exploited (with incentives for their involvement). Challenging experiences, usually in the field, test students, and remedial work is common. Students learn to use a core of technical materials, analytical programs, and databases and leave with a personal, unique resource for "attacking" the natural resource problems of the region and world after graduation … no longer considered the post-university world. The student becomes a rich source of diverse resources for the new graduates of Virginia Tech's Rural System.

A program of evaluation is established, a new "natural-resource SAT." Used by students of the College, the system becomes available for agency and corporate testing as well as a means for testing and certifying educational levels and accomplishments in an international array of nations now having conflicting university standards, courses, curricula, and nearly-meaningless diplomas, some for sale through the Internet. The College has to protect its degree status as standards, requirements, and assumptions about entering students, especially to the graduate programs, become more relaxed, obscure, and costly to verify.

3. System-targeted Studies

There can be seen great waste of human energy and innovation in present student term papers and project work. Rarely does this work "go anywhere." With a view of developing a computer simulation of the rural resources of a region, it would be possible for students to use existing databases, investigate knowledge about parts of the system and after faculty and student scrutiny, the work could be used to advance the model, link to useful chunks of knowledge, and progress to advanced decision-aid potentials. Students now investigate trees, mammals, and fish … over and over. There are (and have been) needs for synthesis, computer links never before possible, new models, advances made that are both micro and macro. The student needs to come to grips with science but begin to sense its limits, model decision conflicts, develop expert systems, and find ways to evolve and unify rather than discard systems and chunks of knowledge (or allow them to be discarded or ignored).

The design of a Rural System will show the parts and functions needing study and presentation. Some of the parts are now well known and can be approximated; more are unknown than known. The students, with faculty, can "fill in the blanks" in a new collegial, non-competitive, team environment. The results of running the model is likely to be useful some day, but even if not, the work done together to develop a total, diverse, system - the major related components (the "5-Es") being ecological, economic, esthetic, energetic, and enforcement - just has to provide a fertile realm for inquiry and learning. It has to add to the "rules" of Wolfram's "new kind of science."

4. Data-base Building

Society, as claimed in general for college sophomores, engages in "excited rediscovery of the trite." The College must assist society in preserving what it knows, build and protect databases that dynamically improve in precision and confidence. We now have GPS to accompany our GIS data and we need to share such data and at least be sure that every study is well located so that its data can be precisely linked to other factors (in other data bases such as for soils and climate) and over time. We have ample evidence that adequate funds will not become available for long-term ecological studies. (There are very few sites and "long-term" is always at risk of statistical rejection, natural catastrophe, and political changes.) We must adopt an active, alternative strategy for such studies.

We have much data and rarely share it and have a resource poorly "worked," a veritable gold mine with value to be gleaned using new technology. Developing a common resource for the College has to provide it and its students and faculty opportunities for publication, for a priori studies that enhance project proposals, for tests of theory. Where 30 years of record seems minimum for most time-series studies, it seems that that awareness itself will be empowering, for it will enhance the future College and its effects on the people and resources of the rural areas of Virginia. This is a database that can be commercial. It is essential for the sophisticated, modern, changing management of the rural lands of the region. E.O. Wilson in Consilience (2002: 269) observed, "We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it and make important choices wisely."

5. Rural System Tract Development

Rural System Tracts is a code phrase for lands actually under management by staff of Rural System of the Initiative. Some are conservation-easement lands, others are lands donated to the University, others strategically gained. These are places to challenge the modern decision maker. These become potential working platforms for all of the integrated enterprises of Rural System. All 80 of these are discussed and detailed at ../aRuralSystem/index.html. Similar to well-known profitable "school forests," profits from them are shared under contract with landowners, the College, and staff of Rural System. These are demonstration areas where the best practices are put in place, diversity works, and computer optimization moves collective gains well past current margins.

6. Graduate Enhancement

The special or unique benefits of being a graduate of this College now are few, relegated to a warm feeling of pride, sport events, and the "benefits" of fund-raising. We advertise and recruit for good entering students, work with and praise them while they are here, and generally ignore them (except for announcing their major promotions and death). The potentials for improvements and continuation of these sound, positive relations are unlimited and clearly-imagined rewards. That work might include field trips, regional conferences, email communication, active promotion of successes of graduates, help networks (grief, health, etc.), and distance-learning courses for expanding horizons as well as updating the on-campus learning activities. It can include providing new references and linkages to information resources, employment opportunities (as for students), journal article abstract sharing, and encouraging consulting "coveys" that are expert teams of correspondents … making the classroom "team project" meaningful and profitable to graduates. The Initiative includes more than continuing education … it can come to mean continuing participation in the new life of a special College … that will soon face competitors. That competition will be good for us and for the environment managed by our graduates. I barely have to suggest the influence of such work on recruitment, reputation, and research potentials.

7. Product and Service Development

The College faculty is now specialized and very busy with all of the dimensions of the College suggested above and other aspects of family and community life. Inventions and "good ideas" are put on the shelf, laid aside because there are many obligations and no clear path for implementing them. Such a path can be created, profits gained for the College and the inventor, and the invention can begin to influence resource management. There are existing structures related to intellectual property too complex for the average member with "a small idea." and with exorbitant counseling, advising, teaching, and research loads. Handling inventions are sporadic and unique affairs, not a life-calling for many people. Outreach has to be more than announcements. We need to move the student and faculty discoveries and idea, the invention, the products, and the practices out on to the lands and waters of the state , not just in recommendations, but into service that also achieves financial gains for the land owners, faculty members, student, faculty-student teams, graduates and other new teams ... with opportunities for others to join us, not wastefully compete. Rural System is developing a Land Force to assist in implementing sound practices on the lands and waters.

Many faculty now serve as consultants. Many have expert knowledge but cannot consult because of other obligations. Marketing consulting services, making available assistants, and making their knowledge work through Rural System can potentiate the faculty, add to their personal income, and make the role of the College more clear.

8. Unification

Recent past experiences suggest that old, separate, individual efforts may not work well in the near future, within the new economic, energy-bound, and political environment. Past success has been largely "the sum of the parts." Rural System profits may be the new unifying topic, for to achieve and sustain them, there must superior education, studies, and active use of results, and marketing … a total system that we have not yet developed and for which we do not yet have full accounting, performance measures, or feedback. Our view of the future is now like that of the insect eye, multifaceted and un-focused.

The College is large and has very diverse interests, as sweeping as those from satellite images to the chemical structure of plant parts and under-stream fauna. It is university-wide in interests and necessary linkages. When "everything" is easily "nothing," a centralizing theme or topic (or two) is needed for identity, for marketing to legislators and others, for simplicity in communication to a TV culture. Rural System and its design, development, and performance can be unifying. The concept can unite far-flung labs, field stations, land units, working students and graduates, and educational centers.

I propose that, with our colleagues across the University, we develop and release annually a noteworthy significant electronic book on rural, natural resource, and environmental ethics.

I encourage participation in NatureSeen and RuraLives and the other Groups of Rural System.

9. Powerbase

I have a vision of the Virginia National Forest as an area on which a grand experiment is developed and studied, that of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest as a natural resource and rural business powerbase. This is a modern-world vision, not of the local National Forest with the simplistic identity as "a place with trees (and other resources)." This not the classical idea of National Forests helping the economy of a region by logging and mill work or selling pulpwood chips. It is not the general glossary definition of an area having "Social and Economic Elements. The variety of tangible and intangible uses, values, products, services, opportunities, and benefits provided by National Forest System lands."

My vision is that of a unified system of resources, people, knowledge, and expert performance. It is not just of a map area of ownership and nearby lands. It is that of the Forest as the likely center of high regional quality of life, an entrepreneurial "commons," a core of economic presence and development. This is the place where there has developed a new public / private partnership, one between the Forest ,The College, Rural System, an ad hoc local committee of stock holders, and they with their affiliates. The Forest would continue to encourage conventional use of its land in legal and supervised ways. The new partnership would grow with employee-owned and citizen-owned principles. Over 80 small businesses are suggested within Rural System, all working together from a single unit, incubator like, the headquarters of a new conglomerate. Expertise, GIS information, optimization, are all offered. Employment, so badly needed within the region, is stabilized, the tax base is increased, and by agreement, part of the "profits" are allocated to help maintain the communities at the edges of the Forest, and some for improving the productivity of the resource base of the Forest. The developing enterprise would work with and on the Forest, but also with a mission of the betterment and maintenance of the Forest. New enhanced links can be made with federal research centers, North and South, East and West. The businesses involved are those of and on the Forest but also of the surrounding private lands and other supported enterprises. The collective businesses, the total conglomerate, work as a diverse stock portfolio, diverse and profitable. Educated crews with designed equipment, for example, would do modern contract logging and other field tasks. There are jobs for guides, services, foods, computer work, equipment sales, tourism, etc.

New commitments are sought from other agencies and commissions (e.g., the Alleghany Foundation, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the National Forest Foundation, and state rural and economic development offices) and they are encouraged to join. Faunal system management, a modern fishery, and ranging are developed by the partnership, as approved, on the Forest and throughout the region, avoiding the instabilities of license sales and other state-agency game and fish problems. It brings entrepreneurial control over the full range of responsibilities assigned by law to the Forest but now clouded by staff changes, past arrangements, letters of intent, memoranda of understanding, and pronouncements. I see this new Forest-and-its-region as much more than a place, a landscape. It becomes a Forest with unique concepts, functions, and payoffs for local citizens and visitors. Blacksburg as centrally located, becomes central to unified studies and optimization flowing into practical applications for tests and demonstrations on private and public lands for joint benefits, frequently overcoming the diseconomies of scale.

10. Financial

Under discussion, the Initiative even though at an early stage, offers financial incentives for individual faculty, department programs, students, graduate opportunities, and regional employment. The present plan is for Rural System to share with the College 10 percent of its annual profits. This is done willingly within the context of the other 10 parts of The Initiative and may increase as encouraged..

11. Feedforward

A part of general systems theory, feedforward is akin to feedback. It engages and makes change today to assure systems being cost effective and responsive to predictions. There is a need for, at least, "white papers" on the likely changes coming with potential climate changes, population changes, forest growth and harvests, coastline changes, hunting and fishing, urban expansion, groundwater management, ecology of fires (prescribed and wild), human diseases related to wild animals, etc. These need to be advisory documents and electronic releases for the public and decision oriented. They can be profitable releases, the grounds for conferences, the elements of computer simulation, and the core for each of the states' county planning efforts. The releases, perhaps with major annual notability, will be good for citizens, will become highly newsworthy, assist graduates, and enliven student discussions about the grounds and computer simulations upon which many of the presentations will be based.

I am comfortable in the university of the past. Much of that comfort will remain. Changing within universities is said to be like moving a graveyard. I grow increasingly uncomfortable with what I perceive to be increasing problems, increasing needs, and more people competing for the same, often-shrinking financial and space resources. I intend for the College to continue to be successful in that mode ... but also in a new mode for change suggested herein. Stability and even survival is not assured within the present state of the university, or any of the federal natural resource agencies, professional resource organizations, or regional and state government. I am gravely concerned and committed to assisting the people via natural resource interests within major regions of the Commonwealth, particularly the coalfields, "Southside" and Tidewater. Action is needed. More activity, when the faculty is working beyond capacity and reward and incentive systems are historical, will not provide a lasting solution. This initiative as a way of unifying with the past, with a novel enterprise, and with direct evident response to pressing needs is essential.

I welcome your written comments about the concepts herein (so that I may collate and share them as appropriate) and your comments to me directly. As always, I welcome your ideas and initiatives.

For the good within and of the College ...

...potentially from the dean
August, 2005

Rural System
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