Dean Johnny Wynne seeds College’s future success as he cedes the leadership reins.
When it comes to the U.S. land-grant university system, there is no stronger advocate and supporter these days than Dr. Johnny C. Wynne. The system — which evolved over the past 150 years through several federal legislative acts to create universities for everyday people and to enable these universities to make knowledge available to all — has been at the center of Wynne’s life for half a century.
N.C. State, one of the nation’s 106 land-grant universities, opened its doors to Wynne as a student in 1961. And since he first arrived, Wynne has never really left. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in crop science here, and he worked his way up the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ ranks, serving as professor, department head, associate dean for research and dean.
And even as he does leave – he retired from his post as CALS dean July 1 – his presence will continue to be felt in the form of the Wynne Fund for Innovation. Wynne created the fund to give future deans the means with which to seed programs that promise to strengthen the economy, protect the environment, enhance human health and nutrition, and ensure a safe and abundant agricultural supply.
Wynne emphasized those four areas – agricultural production and safety, environmental sustainability, economic development and health and nutrition – during his tenure as dean. They pose some of our society’s grandest challenges, he frequently points out, and they are the ones that the College’s academic, research and extension programs are perhaps uniquely positioned to address.
Maintaining and strengthening that position was Wynne’s chief goal as a CALS administrator. That he ever became such an administrator, much less an internationally recognized agricultural scientist, is perhaps surprising, given his humble roots, his reserved demeanor and his early uncertainty about the career path he should take.
Wynne was born in Bear Grass, a tiny community of 50 or so people that’s right in the middle of eastern North Carolina, just a few miles from Williamston. His father was a part-time grower and carpenter who didn’t see a future for his son on the farm. So at his mother’s and father’s insistence, Wynne applied to, and was accepted by, N.C. State and UNC-CH.
Although he thought he might want to go to UNC as a pre-law student, home was closer to Raleigh than to Chapel Hill, so Wynne ultimately chose N.C. State.
Wynne came to N.C. State intending to get a degree in biological and agricultural engineering, but he changed his mind after taking a part-time job with Dr. John Dudley, a quantitative geneticist and alfafa breeder.
“He’s the one who really shaped my life,” Wynne says. “If you took a look at my college transcript, I was down to maybe a 2.3 at that point. When I started working with him, he told me that to become a plant breeder I’d need to go to graduate school — and if I wanted to go to graduate school, I’d need to graduate with at least a 3.0. So that changed my attitude.”
When it came time for graduate school, Wynne wanted to study under Dudley, but he wasn’t willing to leave North Carolina when Dudley took a position at the University of Illinois. So he remained at N.C. State, earning his master’s in crop science in 1968.
Wynne joined the faculty that year as a crop science instructor, then became an assistant professor when he earned his Ph.D. in 1974. His research over the next decade and a half led to new peanut cultivars and breeding lines with higher yields, earlier maturity, drought tolerance and disease and insect resistance.
It was during this time that he came to understand that it was important not only to listen to what growers and agribusinesses needed but also to try to anticipate and get ahead of those needs. He points to his experience helping breed NC7, a large peanut that growers initially scoffed at – and later adopted widely.
“When we submitted NC7 to the industry, they looked at it and said it was too big. ‘We don’t want it,’” Wynne recalled. “So we put it in the freezer. And in a couple of years, they said, ‘We need something bigger. We have to compete.’ So we pulled it out of the freezer and showed them, and they said, ‘That’s exactly what we need.’ And it became a very prominent variety.”
Wynne takes pride in NC7 and some of the other peanut varieties he developed, and he likewise takes pride in developing graduate students who have gone on to make significant contributions of their own in private industry, government and universities here in the United States, as well as in Africa and Asia.
Among those he mentions: Dr. Thomas Isleib, who followed in Wynne’s footsteps as a peanut breeder at N.C. State; Dr. Cindy Green, who is involved in international germplasm research with Monsanto Co.; Dr. Bill Anderson, a research geneticist at the University of Georgia; Dr. Tim Schilling, who works in international programs at Texas A&M University; Dr. Michael Fitzner, who oversees research and extension programs related to plant systems for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture; and Dr. Sanun Jogloy, peanut breeder at Khon Kaen University in Northeast Thailand.
Wynne says that working with international graduate students and participating in the multistate Peanut Collaborative Research Support Program (Peanut CRSP) funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development rank among the most broadening experiences of his life. The Peanut CRSP was designed to enhance peanut research in the United States as well as in developing countries such as Malaysia, Burma and the Philippines, so the man who once balked at being far from home found himself traveling widely to consult and work with growers, researchers and others worldwide.
Meanwhile, he began growing his leadership skills, serving as an officer and on committees for scholarly societies and for research projects. At the university, he made his move into administration in 1989, when he was named head of the Department of Crop Science. After three years, he became associate dean and director of the N.C. Agricultural Research Service.
Wynne was in that post until 2003, and during that time, CALS began working to consolidate and expand field laboratories at a central site along Lake Wheeler Road, just south of the Raleigh city limits. The laboratories are used not only for research but for teaching students and for extending knowledge to farmers and others.
Strengthening the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory became one of Wynne’s priorities after he had a chance to tour similar facilities in other states. “I realized our facilities were near the bottom in quality,” he says. “So we developed a strategic plan, and we spent time on – and still are working on – fulfilling that plan. But we now have quality facilities, and since the site is close to campus, it gives our students experiences other universities can’t offer. I really feel good about the progress we made.”
Today, the field lab has new poultry and swine facilities, along with structural pest control and soil and water erosion facilities. It’s also home to an outdoor turfgrass lab, the only educational feed mill on the East Coast and Wake County’s historic Yates Mill public park. And a dairy milking parlor is in the works.
Asked to name some of his accomplishments as dean beginning in 2003, Wynne is modest, pointing only to some of the many statewide and national accolades won by CALS faculty members. But the College did, indeed, make other substantial strides under his leadership. For example, it launched programs related to value-added agriculture to help growers produce new products, reach new markets and start new enterprises. A stronger N.C. local foods industry, growing wineries and vineyards and promising biofuels and bioprocessing research are among the results of those efforts.
Meanwhile, CALS opened labs to provide researchers and students with infrastructure and equipment to conduct genomic, proteomic and metabolomics research that has become increasingly vital to life sciences industries, agriculture and human and animal health.
During Wynne’s time as dean, Cooperative Extension redoubled its water quality programs and worked to address a national obesity problem by helping North Carolinians eat healthier diets and exercise more. The College also strengthened its efforts to advise and aid students interested in pursuing post-graduate study in medical, veterinary, dental, optometry and other health professional schools. And it moved forward with efforts to increase diversity among students, faculty and staff.
As he looks back, Wynne identifies that diversity as one of the most striking changes since the time he was a student.
Wynne also has noticed a difference in the way that students are supported. “There have always been caring professors at the departmental level, but the atmosphere and attitude by administration toward students has changed a lot over the years,” he says.
Looking ahead, Wynne sees a couple of trends that make him concerned. First, as N.C. State has become more selective, rural students are having a more difficult time getting in. That could mean fewer well-trained farmers, agribusiness professionals and agricultural scientists at a time when exploding world population growth, expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, will demand more from agriculture.
“Having a growing world population means we have in North Carolina an opportunity for markets all across the world,” he says. “Of course, that opens big issues. How do we increase yields to feed this population? And at the same time, how are we going to protect the environment?
“These are the issues that our College should help provide the answers to.”
The second trend that causes concern for Wynne relates to the ability of land-grant colleges to address these types of issues – ones that affect all people. Land-grants rely on public funding to fulfill their teaching, research and extension missions, and that funding depends on public support. And today, Wynne says, “a lot of people have the attitude that higher education is a private benefit and, therefore, the individual should pay for it through higher tuition and fees.”
And less public support will mean that more students – students like him, whose parents lack the money to pay fully those tuition and fees – won’t be able to attend colleges, even those colleges that were created expressly for them.
“Land-grant universities were established to support the citizens of the state and to help them address the problems and issues that they face,” he says. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but it’s been very important to me. It’s the only reason I got an education, and I think it’s still important to our citizens.”
“I’m a product of the land-grant system” is how he puts it. “But,” he adds, “I’ve also seen other evidence my whole career of the value of the land-grant system.”
Wynne speaks with certainty about that value. But when it comes to himself and his future, he speaks with less assurance. Once again, Wynne finds himself at a crossroads. He says he has a lengthy honey-do list, but beyond that he hasn’t made plans. A father of four – all of whom have gone to N.C. State – he hopes to spend more time with his children and the rest of his family.
“I don’t have to work, I don’t think, but I don’t know. We’ll just see,” he says. “What I do know is that I’ve enjoyed working at N.C. State. It’s been very good to me.”