A New Leader for CALS
Bring on the fanfare for fall as NC State readies for a new football season and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences gears up under the leadership of its new dean, Garey Fox.
On this episode of the Farms, Food and You podcast, preview what’s coming up for CALS this fall and in years to come as new Dean Fox lays out his vision.
- Register to meet Dean Fox at a tour stop
- Dean Fox is featured in the upcoming issue of CALS Magazine. Subscribe now to receive the digital issue to your email.
Bring on the fanfare for fall as NC State readies for a new football season, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences gears up under leadership of its new dean, Garey Fox. On this episode of Farms, Food and You, we’ll hear what’s coming up this fall and in years to come as Dean Fox lays out his vision for CALS.
Dean Fox may be a new dean, but he’s not new to CALS. The engineer and career academic has been at the helm of the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering since 2017. While many may know his friendly face around campus, they may not know that Dean Fox was a first-generation college student.
So yeah, I grew up on a beef and wheat cattle farm just outside of Fort Worth, Texas, in a very small town. Graduated with a class of 35 and really just had a love for learning that just developed in me very early on. Had the opportunity as a valedictorian then to get a scholarship and guaranteed admission to a public school in Texas, and then was very active in FFA and had a very strong FFA teacher who had actually taught all three of my brothers, but kind of saw something a little bit different in me and thought that there might be an opportunity to go to college and to move forward. And so I ended up with a scholarship from FFA that required me to major in something related to agriculture. Loved agriculture growing up on the farm, but really had that opportunity through FFA, and then Texas A&M was a perfect place for me to go.
Had an agricultural degree of course, but then my teacher said, “You’re really great at math and science, and you should be an engineer.” I had no idea what that meant. What does it mean to be an engineer and specifically an agricultural engineer? But I really fell in love with the program there at Texas A&M. It was a small program, which was really great for somebody that was coming from a small town.
And then had the wonderful opportunity as an undergrad student … again, first-generation that thought I was just going to go to college, graduate with a degree, and get a job that was going to be my path, but had a faculty member that pulled me aside as a sophomore and said, “Hey, would you like to do undergraduate research with me?” And that completely changed the trajectory of my career. I learned a lot about the fact that you could do some really great, exciting research, cutting-edge research and make a career out of that.
My mom has always been one of my heroes because she has a gift of working with kids. I’ve never met a child that has not just fallen in love with my mom. She’s a great teacher. She’s a teacher’s aide at the same school that I grew up in and Godley, but she always told me, “You should teach; you should be a teacher.” And so kind of falling back on that advice and that guidance, I decided after I started doing undergraduate research and had some success in undergraduate research that a faculty position might be something that I would want to pursue.
And so again, never had a plan to be a dean at the College of Ag and Life Sciences at NC State, but just an opportunity to continue to pursue research and to think about a teaching career. And then, when I started my faculty career, just wonderful interaction and engagement with students, and that’s always been a driving force for me. And again, no career path that said, you’re going to be a department head, you’re going to be a dean. It’s just an opportunity that I saw where I could make a bigger influence on a lot more people moving forward. And I just have had the wonderful opportunity and have had wonderful mentors pushing me in that direction.
The mentorship that pushed him to reach for and achieve opportunities in academia is an ethos that Dean Fox applies in his own teaching and leadership.
It is a stewardship. It’s about giving back because I don’t think there’s anything we do in our careers where we’re doing it by ourselves. I’ve always heard the phrase, you’re always standing on the shoulders of giants, and those giants could be … for me, it was my mom. It was my FFA teacher in high school. I had a really strong math teacher in high school and an English teacher in high school that believed in me and kept pushing me in that direction. But then when I got into the university, it was a faculty member that was helping me with undergraduate research.
And in fact, he’s still my mentor today. He lives in the area. In fact, I have a meeting with him on Friday to invite him back to see my new office in Patterson Hall. He works for Bayer Crop Science. But it’s just a wonderful opportunity to do that. And so it’s important for me, having had those people influence my life to find ways that I can give back to students for sure, but then also to staff and faculty members. If there are ways that I can help them in their careers, if there’s some guidance that I can give to them, I’m not going to hesitate to do that because I know how important it is to have that encouragement and to help them in pursuit of their dreams and their passions.
Beyond mentorship, Dean Fox will be pushing for students to engage with leadership and take agency over their academic experience.
From the student side, for sure … I mean, one of the things that we’ve talked, we’ve a lot about, and we want to absolutely put together are some student advisory boards that are going to come back and report specifically to the dean. So that’s going to be a very important aspect. I’ve charged each of the departments to make sure that they have an active advisory board that’s active within their departments. That might sound like a departmental kind of specific initiative, but it actually leads to a lot of information that’s flowing up to the college. And so we want our student groups to be actively engaged with those advisory boards and that information to flow to the college and then for the college and for us to interact with those advisory boards at the departmental level.
He’s also a big believer in encouraging students and giving them room to try new things, even if they stumble. It is in the failure and what students do next that brings the experience they need to succeed and have the confidence to test new ideas.
The other thing that you are going to learn about me very quickly is that I’m a very competitive person. We don’t have to win all the time, but if we’re going to compete, let’s go to compete to win, right?
In fact, one of the things we did in our department was to really invest in competition teams within the department. We just got back from our professional society meeting in July. Talley up all of the student competitions and there are basically 30 student awards that are given out. Look at first, second and third place in these different competitions. We have invested so heavily in our student competition teams in our department that this past year, the final score was 17 to 13, which was 17 awards for NC State and 13 for the rest of the country.
And so one of the things I’m going to put into place in the dean’s office is to highly, highly support our competition teams across the college, and we’re going to find ways to make sure that we’re engaging students in those competition teams, that we’re promoting them, that we’re building them as strong as we can build them because that’s another way to get our students connected into an extracurricular activity that better connects them back to the college and can help better support them in terms of their learning and their growth and their professional development outside of the classroom.
It’s giving you an opportunity, an experiential learning experience that you can build on. And when we talk to the employers of our graduates in the college, the employers are telling us, “We know you’re training them with really good disciplinary knowledge. What we need them to learn is as many of those soft skills as they can possibly learn.” Those are hard to teach in the classroom setting.
But when you start talking about whether it’s showing cattle, which I did in high school, and I had a lot of experience with that, both showing and judging cattle, or it’s working on a competition team, and you’re putting together a quarter-scale tractor, or you’re on our soils judging team, or you’re on our HortPack team where you’re in horticulture, you’re learning a lot of those soft skills that those employers are absolutely looking at. And how great is it to be able to walk into an interview and to be able to talk about that experience and talk about those individual learning opportunities that you had, but also where you have learned and grow as either a team member or as a leader of that group.
Fox has a unique perspective on students. He’s not just a dean; he’s an NC State parent.
My son is a sophomore. He’ll be a sophomore this next year at NC State and is a member of the marching band, the Power Sound of the South. It’s been a special occasion for us to be able to go to the football games and to watch a football game, which I love watching anyway, and to cheer on the Wolfpack for sure, but then to be able to see the marching band and to see him perform both in the pre-game show and then also at halftime.
I always thought as a faculty member and as a department head I kind of knew the system, but then when you become a parent, and you’re going through the process, and you’re going through orientation as a parent, you just learn so many new things, and then your perspective just changes. I think it’s also given me really a deeper understanding of the experiences of our students. And so when we think about the challenges that our students are going through, whether that’s challenges with mental health or challenges on the financial side, I think when you go through it as a parent, and you see what the students are going through and their experiences, it just helps you understand and give you a little bit more perspective from their side of things. And I think that can only help in terms of, again, generating opportunities for us to help better support our students within the college.
Beyond student stewardship, Dean Fox is taking a breath to listen this summer and fall.
I’ve had a little bit longer of a transition period into my dean’s role, which was really by design. It was strategic. And that’s one thing you’re going to learn about me is I’m a very strategic person, and I’ve had the opportunity to visit with a lot of people across the state of North Carolina: commodity groups, industry groups, our Farm Bureau, Commissioner Troxler, and the NCDA group. Every single one of them has expressed just how proud they are of the College of Ag and Life Sciences at NC State and how supportive they are. And that goes back to the people that are working in this great college.
Again, during the transition phase, I spent a lot of time just going around and just listening to commodity groups and industry groups and our Farm Bureau groups and NCDA, just trying to learn where there are opportunities, where there are challenges that they’re facing, and where NC State can continue to contribute to those challenges. We’ve got a series of meet and greet dean’s tour where we’re going to tour across the state, and we hope that everybody will attend those really just as an opportunity to get to know the dean a little bit better and to get to know me, to understand my background a little bit and where are some of the strengths that I can bring, but then also potentially challenging people to help us to think outside the box.
One of the things I’m really going to emphasize to the college coming into the dean’s position and my first town hall is to really think about how to continuously approve in the college. There are some things that we’re absolutely doing fantastic at, but there are other opportunities where we may have been doing things historically for a very long time in a certain way. How do we get better? How do we continue to get better? I am not a dean that’s looking to change things just for change’s sake, but I am looking for ways that we can continuously get better. And that’s something that we did in the department as a department head is that we were constantly looking for ways to make sure that we were doing better programming for our students, faculty and staff.
Beyond the tour, Fox is excited to meet alumni and friends at the annual CALS Tailgate on October 7.
Yeah. Tailgate’s always been a special event for me, even as a department head. It’s one of those unique opportunities where we get to see displays from each of our different departments and many of our centers and institutes our Academic Programs office, our Extension program and our research office. It’s just a wonderful celebration of the College of Ag and Life Sciences. And again, so supported by our industry groups, our commodity groups, and Farm Bureau and our Department of Agriculture. It’s just a great day to come together to celebrate the college.
I’ve met lots of people over the last two months during the transition, but that’s the thing: I want people to introduce themselves. I want people to tell me where are there these opportunities for us to disrupt for good. We likely won’t be able to do all the things that may be suggested, but we need the ideas. We need to identify the ways that we’re going to get better, and so there’s a real opportunity there.
With that listening, Fox has already started to formulate a few ideas about what’s next for CALS.
There are opportunities for us to continue to grow and advance. I’ve made this comment in multiple speeches across the state. We are a premier land-grant institution. There are very few other land-grant institutions that can match what we do in research and extension and teaching and the quality of what we’re doing. But there are some things that we can do to improve. One of the things that we’re going to see moving forward, and in talking with somebody that’s trained as an engineer, you might expect to hear this is this idea that there’s a digital revolution coming to agriculture. We’re going to see the use of more digital tools in the use of a collection of large data sets and then how to use those data sets to help support decision-making in agriculture.
There’s a revolution that’s about to happen with artificial intelligence if it hasn’t already happened. And I tell people that artificial intelligence is something that’s going to be a tool for us to use. We’re still going to have to have the training and the disciplinary knowledge that we’re providing to our students and that our staff and faculty are providing to our college. AI is going to be a tool, but we’re going to have to be ready to use that tool; otherwise, we are going to get behind others.
With AI quickly becoming more and more prolific, Fox emphasizes that literacy and knowledge of how to use AI and interpret it will be a vital skill for our students, faculty, staff and Extension agents.
I don’t envision AI replacing people. I do think there’s an opportunity, again, to use it as a tool in the things that we do. AI is very good in some regards, but in some regards, it can also give you very bad information. And if you don’t have the disciplinary knowledge to understand what that answer is and how reasonable that answer might be, we’re going to make very bad decisions. And that’s the worst thing that we can do in agriculture, considering the fact that we have rising production costs and we have a changing economic market, and all of these different forces that are coming into play in agriculture. We still need disciplinary knowledge to understand what potentially might be coming out of that AI tool. So we have to use it, like I said, as a tool. It can’t replace the people that are on the back end using that tool.
This is going to be something big that we’re going to need to tackle at the college level, but then also in collaboration with the university level. And there are other universities that are trying to do this as well. We’ve already got some initiatives underway with our Extension with some digital agents and digital literacy and how to use this information and this content. That’s going to be a very powerful aspect for moving us forward because people are going to rely on these tools, whether they rely on them appropriately or inappropriately, and we need to be ready to make sure that we are, again, providing science-based information to our stakeholders throughout the state. It’s a very important aspect that we need to look at.
I think there are different levels that we potentially need to look at in terms of educating, whether it’s our stakeholders or our students and things like that. I think there’s going to be some that are just going to need a basic overview. Hey, these are the AI tools that are available. These are the types of things that it can do. These are the types of things that it can’t do. And then we may need to provide opportunities where people go a little bit further and dig into some of the AI platforms and things like that about how to use them in a little bit more of an innovative mechanism to analyze data and, again, to help us make decisions.
After talking with Dean Fox, it’s clear that CALS will be marching to a strategic beat under his leadership.
We have covered a lot of ground. What I would just say is it’s really about building on the momentum that we have right now, and I’m in such a lucky position coming in as the new dean that there is such great momentum that was started with our former Dean Rich Linton and John Dole helped carry that as interim dean. There’s just such a lot of great momentum, and we’re looking for opportunities for people to partner with us to continue to build that momentum.
The biggest momentum piece right now, probably on the research, Extension and teaching side might be with the Plant Sciences Initiative and the new Plant Sciences Building. And we’re going to be looking at the launch of a new Food Animal Initiative, which had started kind of pre-COVID, and it kind of started to develop, but we’re really going to look at relaunching that initiative. And then really looking at opportunities for us to grow in areas like AI and data science and data analytics, areas like genetic engineering, areas such as prescriptive intervention and those types of things. So just a lot of really great momentum to build on, and it’s just so exciting to be able to take the reins as the next dean of the College of Ag and Life Sciences.
Thank you for joining us on Farms, Food and You. This podcast is a product of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University. If you would like to support the show, please share this episode on social media and leave a review on your podcasting app of choice. Let’s talk soon!