William Collins Sr. has made his mark on NC State in many ways. He was a renowned Extension tobacco specialist, a natural teacher and pioneering researcher. He is a volunteer with Advancement, a philanthropist who, with his wife Ann Collins, endowed a professorship in Extension tobacco production and co-director of the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Agricultural Leadership Development Program.
These significant contributions to the college, university and state were recognized by the university in 2018 with the receipt of the Watauga Medal, the university’s highest non-academic award.
Now he has made yet another mark on the college and university. He and his wife gave a gift to the N.C. Plant Sciences Initiative (N.C. PSI) to name a study room in the Plant Sciences Building.
We talked with Collins to learn why he decided to support the future home of plant science innovation for North Carolina and the world.
You have had a very long career at NC State in teaching, Extension and research. What does CALS mean to you?
CALS is an organization that’s done much to improve the quality of life of the citizens of North Carolina and often worldwide.
NC State, along with North Carolina A&T, is one of the two land-grant institutions for North Carolina. And as such, we have helped grow the agricultural economy of North Carolina. Unfortunately, some of the big industries have shrunk, specifically tobacco, textiles and a few others. But NC State, and CALS in particular, has helped North Carolina increase the diversification of its agricultural economy. Now we’re among the most diversified agricultural states in the nation. This shift was made with the help of research and Extension. You can look at almost any example, and find that CALS was involved in making it happen.
So, what CALS means to me is a way to contribute to the quality of life and the substance of North Carolina.
Why did you choose to name a room in the Plant Sciences Building?
The N.C. Plant Sciences Initiative is at the cutting edge of what’s happening for the future. I wanted to be a part of an initiative that I know will contribute to helping the agricultural sector survive with innovative solutions.
The complex challenges of tomorrow will require teams of faculty working together from different disciplines. The PSI is going to be organized to support these teams. When you look at the model of the PSI, it is unique across the nation. The PSI will be a stimulus to help faculty members who were hired for a specific area 10 years ago to move into new areas and new challenges.
The PSI will enable us to compete for outside funding in unique ways, and more competitively than other land grant institutions can, which will be key for the future.
It’s also going to be a wonderful place to train new young professionals for agricultural-related fields. It’ll be a great stimulus all the way around.
What impact do you hope the N.C. Plant Sciences Initiative will have on the state?
Farming is not a way of life anymore. It’s a business, and farmers are searching for new things to do, new ways to contribute to society and maintain their role in their communities, while being profitable and supporting their livelihoods. The PSI will be critical for supporting them, from the large agribusinesses to the smaller farmers.
We’ve got to have bigger and better yields in order to feed the world and ourselves. For this we need to improve the genetic base of our crop varieties and come up with innovative solutions that cut down on production costs. The PSI will be a pipeline of new research to do what we have got to do to feed ourselves and the world.
I have worked in 44 countries and no other country has the agricultural support that we have here with Extension and our land-grant institutions. The PSI will put us at the top of the heap in what we can do. I don’t look for it to happen overnight, but I think that the total package is there.
Do you have anything you want to say to folks who are considering giving to the Plant Sciences Initiative or the Plant Sciences Building but haven’t yet?
I would say that it’s a privilege to support an initiative that supports agriculture and the quality of life for all concerned.
This PSI is a good thing. I think it will really help us advance. I’ve helped get a lot of money for other things, and the PSI is going to be doing something that other land grants can’t do. The Plant Sciences Building, with faculty members from all different colleges and disciplines working together in one building will really formalize NC State’s support for interdisciplinary research.