Leading with Purpose
“I try to be a person of purpose.”
Daniel J. Robison says it and means it. It gets him going when he wakes every morning.
“Working in higher education is all about enhancing the future – making it better and more sustainable,” Robison says. “There are enormous needs in our growing population to grow standards of living for those still wanting. All that needs to happen on a worldwide landscape that is not getting any bigger. It’s our job to help figure it out. We must always learn more and aspire greatly. That’s what excites me. Every day I get to go to work and participate in something that’s so tremendously important to the future.”
That’s why he accepted the offer to be Iowa State’s 11th dean of agriculture and life sciences: “I wanted the opportunity to have a broader, deeper impact, and that’s what folks in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences do.”
When Robison talks to you about being a person of purpose — whether you’re a prospective student, current student, faculty or staff, alumni or friend — he means that, too.
“People in CALS are, almost by definition, people with purpose,” he says. “They want to make the world a better place, to discover how the world works, to advance the techniques and technologies we use, and to help communities and industries thrive.”
Robison, the holder of the Endowed Dean’s Chair in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, began his duties on Jan. 21, 2019. As might be expected, “whirlwind” aptly describes his first few months.
He’s traveled across the state of Iowa. He’s met alumni and donors in Florida and Arizona and many places in-between. He visited a new sow farrowing facility in northeast Iowa. He toured an Iowa Cage Free egg facility in Goldfield, Iowa. He discussed funding priorities with legislators at the state capitol and with Iowa’s Congressional delegation in Washington, D.C. He’s held listening sessions with multicultural students on how the college can foster a more welcoming environment for people from all walks of life. He’s met with the CALS student council and numerous faculty groups. He held a town hall meeting for college faculty and staff and gathered up dozens of suggestions on how the college can improve, and he’s organized the college’s first-ever family picnic.
Robison’s professional journey to Iowa has taken him through New York, Maine, Wisconsin, North Carolina, West Virginia and more than a dozen countries. He grew up in New Jersey; the Garden State. His father was a soil microbiologist and pharmaceutical microbiologist and his mother was a nurse and school teacher. As a boy, he loved to be in the woods and working in the garden. Boy Scouts was a big part of his life. By the time he finished high school, his family had visited 42 states on summer camping vacations, and he was determined to have both agricultural and forestry experiences over the next several years.
Robison likes to say his story really began with an unforgettable morning in his father’s life — May 11, 1934. On that day, a young Robert S. Robison looked out his window in Manhattan to see the western sky filled with dark, billowing clouds: The impact of the Dust Bowl on the Great Plains had reached New York City.
“My father needed to know more about the phenomenon he was seeing,” says Robison. “Later on, he attended Cornell and Rutgers, studying agronomy and soil microbiology. His love for natural resources and the environment certainly affected me and my interests. Both my father and my mother cared deeply about the natural world and how it’s put to work on behalf of people and communities.”
Throughout his career in higher education, he’s been more than aware of Iowa’s importance in the realm of agriculture and natural resources.
“What happens in Iowa matters everywhere, not just within the state,” Robison says. “Our agricultural programs are among the strongest in the world. Iowa has an extraordinary landscape and Iowa State is an extraordinary university doing tremendously important things for the benefit of Iowa and the world.”
One thing that’s surprised him about Iowa in his first few months is the phenomenal interest and commitment of people to agriculture, in all its dimensions.
“People I’ve met across the state, no matter what they do, are fluent and conversant in agriculture. I’m not sure you could find somebody in Iowa for whom agriculture is not part of their world, in some way or form. That’s not true in other states. It’s like: Wow, agriculture is the story here. The story of Iowa is written in agriculture.”
Robison has been formulating what he perceives to be key priorities for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. These include:
Grow enrollment. Robison wants to build on what he’s been calling the “CALS Advantage,” which he defines as: equipping students to find their voice and advocate for what they feel is important; encouraging students to be innovators and adopt an entrepreneurial mindset in everything they do — locally and globally; ensuring students are masters of their chosen disciplines, in order to effectively contribute their knowledge in interdisciplinary ways; and graduating the leaders of tomorrow.
Make the students’ experience the best it can be. “Our students are our number-one reason for being here. I want our students to be able to make a deep, broad and positive impact on the world, which is what our college is all about. We want them to have the advantage of the very best curricula, and then synergize it with all kinds of value-added experiences, from study abroad, to domestic travel, to undergraduate research, to entrepreneurship, and more.”
Be a powerful agent for economic development. “We do that through each of our land-grant missions of teaching, research and extension. We facilitate it through an understanding of science and technology. Our college needs to be a player in all those areas.”
Rev up our research powerhouse. “An aspirational goal is to double the size of our research enterprise. More proposals, more graduate students, more patents and innovations derived from research results. That’s a huge task, but sometimes a goal needs to be out of reach so you can work on bringing it closer to reality.”
Serve Iowans better through Extension. “Extension and our college are deeply entwined. We need to be science-driven and service-driven. That should exemplify everything we do as extension professionals and extension educators.”
Be more collaborative. “We need to push the boundaries of what it means to be a land-grant university by interacting in new ways with each other on campus, and with the public and private sectors. Collaboration has to be a pillar of who we are and what we do. It will lead to new partnerships, new revenue streams and exciting innovations. We should reach out to those we’ve not traditionally been engaged with, because we’re seeing the diversity of people and communities reflected in our students, faculty and staff.”
Robison will continue to refine his priorities and vision for the college and share it with the 45,000-plus agriculture and life sciences alumni around the world.
“Whenever I meet our alumni, I’m always impressed — and encouraged — by their devotion and dedication to our college. Many tell me that their time spent at Iowa State was one of the best times of their lives, and one of the most meaningful and important to them. That’s a beautiful, wonderful thing. That’s powerful.”
And those are the kind of purposeful people Robison wants to continue to develop in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“Solutions to today’s challenges are in the minds of our diverse, energetic students and our great faculty and staff,” he says. “They’re in the minds and actions of our graduates we send out into every corner of the globe. We help them be purposeful. That’s one of the great blessings of our college.”
THE ROBISON FILE
Grew up in North Brunswick, New Jersey
Married to Julie Robison, an urban, regional and community planner
Two daughters: Sophia, a city planner in Pittsburgh
Hannah, a graduate student in kinesiology and athletic training at Indiana University
B.S., forestry, State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF), Syracuse
M.S., silviculture and forest influences, SUNY ESF, Syracuse
Ph.D., entomology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Dean, Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, West Virginia University
Associate Dean of Research, College of Natural Resources, North Carolina State University
Professor, Hardwood Research Cooperative, North Carolina State University
Senior Research Scientist, SUNY ESF, Syracuse
Expertise: Forestry and forest entomology
Leadership Fellow, American Council on Education, 2007-2008
International experience in 12 countries, including China, Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Myanmar, Israel and South Africa
Outstanding Teaching Award, North Carolina State University; Outstanding Service Award, SUNY ESF, Syracuse
Published and presented widely with colleagues and students
Member, Entomological Society of America and Society of American Foresters
THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT DANIEL J. ROBISON
- Best advice ever received: “My dad told me to be generous with ideas. A person needs to have the guts to share ideas and let them be tested, found worthy or lacking, and then move on.”
- Enjoys nothing better than a hike with his family.
- An avid reader and “amateur student” of history and geography. (A recent book he recommends: “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation” by Joseph Ellis, on the intertwined lives of John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington.)
- Hosted Norman Borlaug for dinner at his home in Cary, North Carolina, in 2005, where Borlaug sat on the back deck with Robison’s children and bunches of the neighborhood kids and told them stories of agriculture and encouraged their success.
- Looking forward to getting back into bike riding in Iowa (“You needed to be like Charles Atlas to be a bike rider in West Virginia.”)
- A favorite quote: “Food is a moral right.” — Norman Borlaug
- His father-in-law grew up in Cresco, Iowa, and his wife’s family is all in Wisconsin.
- Worked two summers after high school on a dairy farm in upstate New York.
- First visited Iowa State in 1986 as a State University of New York researcher to attend a scientific meeting on the use of hybrid poplar trees for biomass development.
- Favorite tree: “The almost-grows-anywhere, majestic, emergent and fine-feathered five-needled eastern white pine.”
- Most fascinating insect: “I loved working on the forest tent caterpillar for my doctoral research given its social characteristics. Calasoma beetles are pretty cool, too.”
DEANS OF THE COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE AND LIFE SCIENCES
Daniel J. Robison, Forestry and entomology, 2019-
Joe Colletti, Forestry economics, 2017-19 (interim)
Wendy Wintersteen, Entomology, 2006-17
Wendy Wintersteen, Entomology, 2005 (interim)
Catherine Woteki, Human nutrition, 2002-05
Richard Ross, Veterinary medicine, 2000-02
Richard Ross, Veterinary medicine, 2000 (interim)
David Topel, Animal science, 1988-2000
John Pesek, Agronomy, 1987-88 (interim)
Lee Kolmer, Agricultural economics, 1973-87
Marvin Anderson, Agronomy, 1972-73 (interim)
Floyd Andre, Entomology, 1949-72
H.H. Kildee, Animal husbandry, 1933-49
Raymond Hughes, Chemistry, 1932-33 (interim)
Charles F. Curtiss, Animal husbandry, 1902-32
James “Tama Jim” Wilson, Self-educated, 1897-1902
Seaman Knapp, Classical education, 1879-85
Others served in agricultural leadership capacities in Iowa State’s early years, but did not hold the title of “Dean.”