MANHATTAN, KAN. — To continue attracting world-class faculty and to build the number of students studying grain, milling and baking science, Kansas State University must have “a facility, infrastructure and equipment that’s at the level where the industry is,” said Richard H. Linton, PhD, president of Kansas State University.
Dr. Linton recently sat for an interview with Josh Sosland, president of Sosland Publishing Co., to offer an update on a $210 million capital campaign to modernize the K-State Manhattan campus and share his vision for the future of the university.
The 15th president in the university’s 160-year history, Dr. Linton joined K-State in February 2022 from North Carolina State University, Raleigh, where he was dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences from 2012-22. Before that, Dr. Linton held academic positions at The Ohio State University, Columbus, and Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.
In addition to his bringing to K-State a strong professional background in agriculture, Dr. Linton holds a master’s degree and doctorate in food science from Virginia Tech University, Blacksburg.
In a wide-ranging interview, Dr. Linton said land-grant universities need to move beyond the traditional model and focus on the changing needs of their states. While addressing the future of food and agriculture, the economic base of Kansas, remains vital, a school like K-State must also turn its attention to urgent needs in Kansas, including community health, childcare, elder care and housing, Dr. Linton said.
The text of the interview with Dr. Linton follows:
Sosland: You’ve now been president of K-State for 18 months and have established some ambitious plans. How do you think K-State will be different five years from today?
Dr. Linton: I think it will be different in a lot of ways. A new strategic plan comes out in September, and I think what you’ll see is our aspiration to be the next-generation land-grant university. And we define that as using the foundation of a land-grant university, but then kind of developing and creating thereafter from scratch based on how the world has changed over the last 125-plus years. So as an example, when we think about students, we think about not only students who get a degree on campus, but we also think about learners who might not be degree seeking, who might be certificate seeking. They might be credential seeking. It could be someone who has been working in the industry for 25 years and wants to come back for a data science credential in order to elevate their career. So we’re thinking widely and more broadly about how we define students, really as learners.
From a research perspective, it’s about interdisciplinary work. It’s about bringing many different disciplines together, developing private/public partnerships with industry to do things together, to leverage ideas, to leverage resources and also think about things that can help strengthen the economy in Kansas, finding ways to create jobs and make Kansas an attractive place to come to work and live.
From an extension standpoint, we need to be asking what’s really important and relevant to our stakeholders around the state of Kansas today. A lot of the programs in place for the last 50-plus years are based on what the land-grant university model developed a long time ago. So if you actually ask, as an example, what’s most important to our communities, it’s community health, it’s childcare, it’s elder care, and it’s housing. Certainly we need to be doing all those programs relative to agriculture and food systems and communities, but I think we need to be more relevant to what’s important to people today and search out new partnerships to be more successful. That’s a 50,000-foot viewpoint, but we’re thinking about research, teaching and extension in a very, very different way and trying to think about the future rather than being stuck on the great things that happened in the past.
Sosland: Drilling a little deeper to the school itself, how do you see the faculty and student body changing in the future?
Dr. Linton: From a student body perspective, we already have one of the best student experiences in the nation here at K-State. When you look at the Princeton Review, very, very typically the best quality of life is at Kansas State University, and students are happy. Eighty-one percent of our students get some form of financial assistance and aid, and 97% of our students find a job or go to graduate school or go to medical school or vet school at the time they graduate. Even though we’re at kind of the top when it comes from a student experience standpoint, we want to be better. We’re talking about branding our students with high-impact practices or applied learning, which are those things that our students, when I say our students, not just Kansas State University students, but students all over the country don’t have enough of in order to be leaders in the workplace upon the time they graduate. So these would be things like an international experience or an internship experience, or an undergraduate research experience. It might be a skillset that would include things like time management, negotiation skills, financial management skills, public speaking skills, and communication skills.
From a faculty standpoint, I think we’d like to be able to meet faculty where they are and empower faculty to be more entrepreneurial, to work more with stakeholder groups, to work in interdisciplinary teams to be able to solve bigger issues and challenges of the world. But we also want to give faculty the freedom in a way that says not all faculty have to do the same things to be successful. One faculty member might be an excellent teacher, another one might be a really strong basic researcher, or yet another might have lots of intellectual property and lots of licensing agreements. We’re trying to open that opportunity for faculty that creates more freedom and at the end of the day has more of an impact as a land-grant university to the state of Kansas.
Sosland: Returning to the student body, how do you see the profile of the students at Kansas State University changing in the next five years?
Dr. Linton: We believe there’s going to be an undergraduate/graduate population that’s degree seeking that’s going to be a hybrid of on-campus and distance. And we’re trying to figure out what is the right ratio and percentage of programs that are distance only, on-campus only and kind of a hybrid in between. One of the things that’s so important and sacred at Kansas State University is the on-campus experience, and we don’t want to lose that and become a distance education only university. But we know that the world calls for it. We’ve got to figure out what that right ratio is.
The second piece is, and I alluded to it earlier, we’re now considering students not just being degree-seeking students, but learners who are non-degree-seeking, looking for certificates and/or credential programs. I think as we move forward, we’re going to see a lot more interaction with adult learners. And even with younger learners who are looking for education, they’re looking for knowledge to help elevate them with an opportunity in Kansas or elsewhere. But our students are going to look different, and we’re going to be working with those students who don’t ultimately get a degree. I think a land-grant university is the university that needs to adapt to that new kind of student learner.
Sosland: So with everything you’ve said about how things might change right now, you’re working to raise almost a quarter billion dollars for agricultural infrastructure at the university. Why is that important to the future of Kansas State University and to the state of Kansas?
Dr. Linton: So the No. 1 economic component in the state is agriculture and food systems. This is a $210 million project. It involves nine different buildings. Some buildings will come down because they can’t be modernized, some buildings will be renovated, and other buildings will be built. But they will be built with a very new thinking and new concept in mind, which is how do we bring together interdisciplinary teams. Rather than having a department of agronomy or animal science or food science, we’re going to focus on things like how do you solve challenges around sustainability? How do you solve challenges around genetics? What role do data analytics and artificial intelligence play? And so with this multi-building reconfiguration comes new leadership. And to your question earlier comes a new thinking for faculty. So instead of faculty thinking about their own independent, sometimes we call them siloed programs, we’re talking about faculty that really want to engage in teams and go after the big grand global challenges of society.
Agriculture and food systems at Kansas State University from an infrastructure standpoint has been No. 1 on the list for a long period of time. I was just fortunate and lucky that I came with that experience and being a Dean of a College of Agriculture at North Carolina State University, but also we have a great incentive package from the state. We ended up receiving $50 million from the state, half of that money was given to us without anything attached to it. The other half was a three-to-one match. We had to raise $75 million in order to be able to get $25 million. It was a great way to be able to kind of leverage our stakeholders, our donors, our commodity groups by saying here’s a great opportunity where the state is going to help us, but we have to have skin in the game as well. We’re about 70% to 75% of the way through in raising $210 million. We got a little bit more to go and a little bit of time to be able to do that, but I’m very optimistic and encouraged that this state is stepping up in really big ways, and I’m incredibly thankful to donors who have supported this initiative. It will be a transformative change when we have the buildings and facilities, the leaders and the right kinds of faculty engaged in this work. It will elevate our ability for research and extension at a level that’s tenfold what it is today.
Sosland: Why do milling, baking and grain sciences remain important academic programs at Kansas State?
Dr. Linton: You have to think about what are your strength areas, and our strength areas are certainly baking, milling science, food science, beef cattle, the beef industry and wheat science and wheat genetics. And so when you really think about the central focus of this is around grain, baking and milling science. It’s what’s important to Kansas, but it’s also where we have our core strength, and we’re trying to build on where we excel. We have the No. 1 baking, milling and grain program in the world. But we have facilities that don’t say that and don’t show that. So if we are to continue to attract world-class faculty, and if we are going to continue to attract and increase the amount of student interest, we need to be able to have a facility, infrastructure and equipment that’s at the level where industry is. That’s why it’s a central focus. It’s what makes us unique and different and special.
Sosland: Before coming to K-State last year, you were at North Carolina State, which you mentioned, and then you were at The Ohio State University, two geographic areas of remarkable economic energy and development over the last 20 years. How has that experience shaped your thoughts about what might be possible for Manhattan and the state of Kansas?
Dr. Linton: So I’ve seen a lot in three other land-grant universities. I also worked at Purdue University, I’ve worked at Ohio State and then NC State University. And what I’ve seen is if you listen to your stakeholders in the state and listen to what’s important to them, they will support you with advocacy, and they will support you financially. When we’ve seen this coming together of interdisciplinary teams to go after and solve the grand global challenges of society — at Purdue University, they were sixfold more effective when it comes to competitive grants within three years. At North Carolina State University, before we even opened up the doors to a new building, we were about 10 times more successful in competitive grants. I’ve been at other places where I know that this is a process with great solutions and great outcomes. And I’ve seen the state’s economy mold and adjust to that. And I think we have the same opportunities here in Kansas as well.
Sosland: You have advanced degrees in food science. Our readers are interested in your background — your areas of scientific study and expertise.
Dr. Linton: I was a food microbiologist. I was hired at Purdue with a three-way appointment in extension, research and teaching. And that’s important because there are not many university presidents in the country, even at land-grant universities, that really, truly understand and value the impact of extension. Me coming from that background gives me a completely different perspective about how to lead a land-grant university.
I studied subjects like Salmonella and E. coli and ways to be able to destroy and control them within food systems. But most of my work in extension was working with the industry. I taught food safety programs. I taught sanitation programs with a direct relationship with the industry, and a lot of applied research as well. That inspired my love for stakeholders and industry. And I’ve just carried that forward throughout my entire career, so engaging with stakeholders here has been really easy for me from day one.
Sosland: The Food Safety Modernization Act was a major piece of legislation and food safety is very much at the forefront of interest. It’s actually a fairly new phenomenon in milling because for most of the last 100 years people thought you really couldn’t pass along pathogens through flour, and now they know you can. Do you feel like we’re all on track to getting this all under control, or is there a lot more work to be done?
Dr. Linton: Well, I think when it comes to food safety, what I’ve learned in my 35-year-plus career, is it’s always evolving and changing. Don’t think you have the full solution for it because when you do, another bug creeps up and surprises you. So I think in food safety, I’ve learned continuing with resiliency and with better practices, not only helps to make the product safer, but at the end of the day it produces up more high-quality product. So you’re right, I think in the grain and milling industry, food safety has just really been a challenge over the last maybe 10 years or so, but I think what we’re seeing when we have better practices for sanitation and food safety is that you get a higher quality product as well. Anything that we do for food safety is going to be good for the industry.