Who’s Scrambling Up Our Ladder?

Who's Scrambling Up Our Ladder?

I am about to “semi-retire” and will be cutting my time at the University of Georgia to less than half. The university gets to save money but by rehiring me can still keep me on its list of faculty. It seems like a good idea for everyone, although my wife is convinced I will do just as much and get paid less.

However, the “R” word is not something that should be bandied about thoughtlessly, and those I’ve told have been a little confused, asking “why,” along with other profound questions. More than a few have looked aghast and asked, “Who is out there to take your place?”

I have no doubt there are many others who can do what I do, but I also have no doubt it will be harder to fill my current academic position. Although my duties include teaching classes, advising students and serving on countless university committees, I have been able to wear many hats: for producers, retailers, cut flower growers, greenhouse and nursery people and gardeners. Sometimes I confuse even myself, but I have been able to travel widely to speak to all these groups, write pithy columns like this one and still be in good stead with my employer. I have no idea how that happened but I know that if one wanted to follow such a path today, it would be very difficult.

Today, a young Ph.D. is hoping for a job–any job–but many universities are not hiring. When these postgraduates do obtain employment, they quickly learn the rules of survival. They are simple enough: submit grant proposals and write papers for scientific journals. It is academic roulette to take innovative directions too often, especially early in your career. Branching out was the purview of extension agents, and good ones quickly took the national stage.

However, if an extension position is even filled today, you can be sure it will include a healthy dose of teaching and research to keep them home. And, as we all know, the extension service is in dire straits and most who retire will not be replaced.

Our Next Leaders

I recently spoke in Portugal about the genesis and evolution of the Trial Gardens at UGA. At the end of my presentation, I told the audience this “endeavor should not be attempted” by a newly hired professor. It took too much effort and generated too few papers.

The questions came: “If a young enthusiastic person can’t do it, who will?” The short answer: Very few universities will be doing trial gardens in five years.

Securing grant funds and writing scientific papers must be accomplished early in one’s career. Overseeing a trial garden is seldom grant worthy and results in few, if any, scientific papers. Ergo, fewer such gardens, fewer objective data, far less access to results.

The news is full of stories of overall failures in public schools. Too many students, too few teachers, poor facilities. The same problems affect our public universities. When my colleague Dr. Michael Dirr retired a few years ago, he was not replaced. He was, and is, recognized as one of the world’s experts in woody plants and one of the nation’s finest teachers, and even his position was not filled.

Will Carlson from Michigan State University was probably floriculture’s greatest cheerleader, and is now gone. So many others who spread our word to each other and to others outside our industry have not been replaced. This is not sustainable.

Some suggest the industry is backed by hundreds of garden writers, so the loss of the academic opinion may not be missed. This is hardly accurate. Garden writers are terrific, they do their best talking about this new plant and this new design concept, but very few can make a decent living as a garden writer. There are too few (usually competing) outlets, and the pay is often miserly.

Yes, many have blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts where they post their personal comments, but nearly all this writing is empirical, based on observations only. Few have talked to true experts in the extension and academic community–those who have had their hands in the dirt for years–and those who have tried complain there are fewer to talk to every year. Even fewer have true research experience.

In fact, some blogs don’t like us at all. One of the more popular blogs is Garden Rant, on which I have posted a few comments myself. It is an excellent forum–they have snarky fun, they sing praises of this and that–and one plank of their manifesto reads: “Convinced that gardening MATTERS.” But below that is another more troubling (to me) caption: “We are suspicious of the horticultural industry.”

Mistrust may be a human condition, but unfounded suspicions are no better than rumors. They can easily, if unintentionally, put the entire horticultural industry in a poor light.

These thoughts are based on my travels and discussions with others, and while my observations may seem a little pessimistic, I am not. The generation of researchers and inspirers before me thought the cupboard would soon be bare, but we’ve managed.

Although people may question where the next group of broad-based academics will come from, I know they’re out there. I’ve met many at academic meetings and horticulture meetings. Many young researchers are doing excellent work hand in hand with industry leaders. I know we will manage just fine with the next generation. It may be more difficult for them to enjoy the same latitude I have, but give them a little time; they will emerge and do well.

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