A conversation with Keith Belli, dean of Clemson’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences
CLEMSON — Keith Belli was named dean of Clemson University’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences Sept. 1, 2018.
Belli comes to Clemson from the University of Tennessee, where he headed the forestry, wildlife and fisheries department. Prior to joining the University of Tennessee in 2007, Belli worked at Mississippi State University for 18 years, transitioning from professor to the associate dean of the College of Forest Resources, associate director of the Forest and Wildlife Research Center and interim head of the forest products department.
Belli became dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences (CAFLS) shortly after the college was reorganized to include Cooperative Extension and the university’s six Research and Education Centers, collectively known as the Clemson Experiment Station.
The goal of the reorganization is to put the college on the same organizational footing as other top agricultural colleges and allow it to act even more efficiently and effectively in preparing students to become leaders in their chosen careers and in continuing to perform research and Extension that helps South Carolina citizens lead healthy and prosperous lives. The reorganization also gives the college an integrated statewide footprint.
The following is an interview with Belli about opportunities and challenges the reorganization presents, his goals for the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences and his favorite movie.
What excited you about coming to Clemson and the opportunity to become dean?
What really excited me was the opportunity to get involved with the reorganization of CAFLS. So often reorganizations are a response to negative things like budget cuts or changes in philosophy that require you to reorganize to survive. But the CAFLS reorganization is actually positive in that it’s a way to increase excellence and serve our students and South Carolina citizens more effectively. And, of course, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to come to a university with such a strong academic reputation and land-grant tradition.
Now that you’ve been here for six months and had the opportunity to see CAFLS close up, what impresses you most and what will be some areas of emphasis for the college?
What impresses me most is just the atmosphere. I had heard before I came about the family atmosphere at Clemson and in CAFLS. It was something I hoped was true and it is.
In terms of specific things about the college, I think one of the things that we can be proud of is the focus on experiential learning. Most colleges of agriculture do experiential learning well, and I think that CAFLS does it very well and can make a really strong case that we’re the leaders in that kind of education at Clemson. This shows in how successful our students are in terms of retention, job and graduate school placement, and in our graduation rates.
In terms of areas of emphasis, we need to make sure we remain relevant to the needs of the state. That means we have an obligation to help our traditional agricultural industries remain competitive by continuing to develop new varieties that will increase yields and be tolerant to changing weather patterns, and by developing precision sensor and drone systems that help our farmers use fertilizers, pesticides and water more efficiently. But we also have to acknowledge that there are changes going on in the state that we need to keep up with, whether it’s the aging of the farming population, or increasing urbanization and suburbanization. We need to keep pace with the needs of those communities.
CAFLS occupies a unique position in Clemson’s land-grant mission and is home to Cooperative Extension and the Experiment Station. What do you want people to know about the reorganization and how it will help CAFLS students and South Carolinians?
Land-grant colleges play an important role in solving problems and creating prosperity through teaching, research and Extension, and CAFLS is the beating heart of Clemson’s land-grant mission. While the college has always worked closely with Cooperative Extension and our Research and Education Centers to tackle challenges facing South Carolinians, the merging of Extension and the Experiment Station into CAFLS will create even more synergy.
For example, that could mean more research opportunities for CAFLS students or CAFLS students designing and implementing Extension programming.
Outside of Clemson athletics, Cooperative Extension and our Research and Education Centers are probably the most well-known face of Clemson out in the state. But what people don’t always understand is how what goes on inside Perimeter Road supports and informs our programs and research.
We want people out in the state to know that when they ask an Extension agent to solve a problem, the solution is backed up by science that happens on campus or at our RECs. I don’t know if people have always made that connection, but as academics, Cooperative Extension and the Experiment Station grow together, we will go from working closely to working seamlessly and the citizens of South Carolina will see the benefit of that.
What are some of your goals for CAFLS, and how will you know those goals are being met?
CAFLS has some programs that are just on the cusp of becoming nationally or even internationally known. One of those programs is packaging science, which consistently ranks second nationally and has something like a 100-percent job placement rate. One of our main goals is to look at other programs in CAFLS that are close and give them the support they need to go to the next level. Those might be programs in water research or genetics or forest science or precision agriculture. Whatever we decide, we want CAFLS to be known as the best in those chosen areas. But we don’t want to chase metrics to reach that programmatic excellence. Rather, we want the programmatic excellence to drive the metrics.
What’s something about the agricultural and natural resources industries that students might not understand?
One big misconception is that agriculture is monolithic. The fact is that there are a lot of different disciplines that go into creating food and fiber and managing our natural resources. For example, there’s a high degree of technological skill involved, like drones and sensors and global positioning systems. Even operating a tractor isn’t the same as it used to be. Modern farm equipment can be programmed for precision agriculture so it will apply a precise amount of fertilizer or pesticide or water exactly where it needs to be.
What that means for our students is that the areas of study in CAFLS and career opportunities for our students are extremely broad. There are agricultural economists, geneticists, statisticians, biologists and engineers. There are even agricultural communicators. You name the discipline and you’ll find a version, usually an applied version, within CAFLS.
What’s your all-time favorite movie and why?
This might be the most difficult question you’ve asked me because there are a couple movies I really like. But I think of it as the movie that if I’m channel surfing and I come across it, I have to stop and watch it. For me that’s “Casablanca.” I just love that movie. It has great acting, of course, but it’s also more than just a love story. It has patriotism and plot twists, and at the end of it all, it’s really about friendship. It’s fun to watch a movie from a simpler time.
You came to Clemson from the University of Tennessee, where they haven’t beaten Alabama since 2006. How does it feel to be at a university that has beaten Alabama twice in the past three years to win the college football national championship?
I’ve enjoyed the heck out of it. It’s been great to come from a program that’s been struggling to one that’s at the peak of success. And coming from the University of Tennessee and Mississippi State before that, it’s even sweeter that Clemson’s national championship came against Alabama.