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Lifelong commitment leads to top college position

Bernie Engel, the new dean of agriculture, definitely believes the right road led him to Purdue--his professional home since 1985. That road started at his family’s farm in Illinois, where Engel developed his lifelong commitment to agriculture and to farmers. It was early in high school when he realized he would need to leave the farm to fulfill that commitment.

“I finished high school during one of the toughest times in agriculture. I would have been interested in staying and working on our farm, but it wasn’t an option for me or my brothers,” Engel explains.

Engel was fortunate that he had high school teachers who encouraged his love of math and science, entered him into competitions, took him on college visits, and even introduced him to very early computer programming in the 1970s. These experiences led him to decide that combining agriculture with engineering would be a good fit. He applied to the University of Illinois and received a $500 a year scholarship that paid tuition for both semesters and even gave him some money back.

As he prepared to graduate with a degree in agricultural engineering in 1984, Engel explains that a horrendous job market motivated him to accept an assistantship and stay at the University of Illinois to complete a master’s degree--that and one other perk. “They had also just gotten in brand new personal computers and were giving them to students in the program.”

A year later USDA launched the National Needs Ph.D. Fellowship Program to encourage students to pursue advanced degrees in key areas. Engel remembers, “They were offering tuition, health insurance and $18,000 a year in 1985, which was real money then!”

After looking at options all over the country, Engel and his wife Andrea decided to come to Purdue. As he was finishing his doctorate, Engel accepted a position in the university’s agricultural and biological engineering (ABE) department.

“I’ve had many offers and opportunities through the years. But it has not been hard for me to say no. I remember when my daughter was about 5 and I was just starting out as an assistant professor she would often say to family and others, ‘Someday my dad will get a real job.’ I’m pretty sure that even with the dean’s job that I will never have had a ‘real job’---it’s always been a passion and a calling.”

At times, Engel recounts his career like chapters in a book, as surprised as the reader about what happens next. From the beginning of his career to present day, he has encountered major successes in his research in developing water quality models and environmental decision support systems. Among the many successes he achieved while building a global reputation in this field, is the one that led to the launch of FieldWatch, a non-profit company with an online mapping registry that promotes communication between producers of specialty and row crops, beekeepers, seed companies and pesticide applicators. Since its founding in 2009 the company’s reach has extended throughout the United States and in Canada.

Engel, who serves as ex-officio voting director for the company, explains what he sees as the reason behind FieldWatch’s success.

“I think the bottom line was a problem with communication among producers and farmers and those using pesticides. It used to be farmers knew each other and knew what was being grown and used on the farms around them. Things have changed. This information needed to be made available and new discussions needed to occur. My philosophy is that if people are well-informed and communicate, they can collaborate together voluntarily and be more effective than you could imagine.”

Another key chapter in Engel’s career has been his work with undergraduate and graduate students. He shares the story of two of his earliest graduate students with whom he worked on the initial development of what is now the gold standard in hydraulic and water quality modeling for bigger agriculture and mixed-use watersheds on every continent.

“One of the smartest things I did in my lab was to get out of the way of two extremely talented graduate students. One of these students (Raghavan Srinivasan) is now a distinguished professor at Texas A & M and the other (Jeff Arnold) works with the Agricultural Research Service in a super scientist role. Maybe most faculty would have held on to that model, but I was ready to move on to another project and support them so they could reach these pinnacles in their careers.”

“Bernie gave us the freedom to think broadly and independently. That really helped us, and he led by example,” said Srinivasan. “Both Jeff and I are as successful as we are because of Bernie’s mentorship.”

Successful and content in his research and teaching, Engel was not considering a leadership role until the ABE department head was promoted to an associate dean position in engineering and then College of Agriculture Dean Randy Woodson asked Engel to serve in the interim head position.

“That was a great way to test drive the opportunity and for people to test drive me in that role,” said Engel. When the college conducted a national search, he applied for the job and was selected. He served in the department head position for the next 14 years, which is now 18 years ago. Still, he vividly remembers his first day as ABE department head.

“There are actually three stories that are very similar that I could share, but I’m just going to tell you one,” Engel begins. “On my first day and hers, Monica Ivantysynova (the late Maha Professor of Fluid Power Systems) walked into my office, and I had to let her know that we didn’t have the thousands of square feet she had been promised. Meanwhile, her entire hydraulics laboratory, including a full-size tractor, were in cargo containers that had left Germany and were now crossing the Atlantic Ocean. There I was with someone who was truly one of the best in her field in the world, and I had to give her that news and come up with another solution, fast. So, I took her to the northside of Lafayette where we had found a warehouse that had power. We walked into the empty warehouse and Monica could envision it as her space. When the cargo containers arrived in October, the place was ready.”

That first day was definitely a harbinger for Engel, who spent the next decade figuring out issues with space and other resources in “less than ideal” circumstances. What he quickly learned, however, was that showing success, such as growth in student enrollment or research funding, needed to precede receiving resources. That success also included leading the department’s graduate and undergraduate programs to the top of the U.S. News and World Report rankings. Finally in 2015, Engel started the final approach to land a new ABE building.

“Honest to goodness, for three years it was 30 hours a week thinking building, building, building,” Engel remembers. After the building was approved, demolition was about to start and the department was moving to their temporary home in Lilly, Engel says that time commitment dropped to 30 minutes a week. He was ready for a new adventure.

Over the next 6 months, Engel visited and lectured in China twice, once going on an extended trip with his wife. And he delivered a presentation in Peru, bringing his daughter with whom he went to Machu Pichu and the list of other places she’d identified. Soon after his travels concluded, a new dean, Karen Plaut, launched the search for an associate dean of research and graduate education. The timing was ideal. Engel was ready for the next chapter.

During the next four years Engel and his team focused on growing success in research funding—which has grown from $60 million to a record $100 million this past fiscal year, and making significant progress in metrics that have impacted the college’s reputation and rankings. This year Purdue Agriculture ranked #3 in North America and #5 in the world in the QS rankings of colleges of agriculture.

Engel did not think his journey as senior associate dean was finished until the announcement was made about Dean Plaut being promoted to the position of executive vice president for research. After the announcement, Engel was surprised and humbled by what happened next. “There was a steady stream of people encouraging me to apply for the dean position. That had a definite impact on my decision.”

Engel adds that the timing seemed right personally as well. After living on a small farm, he and his wife had bought in 1999 in Warren County, they were ready to move back to West Lafayette. He explains that buying and building their farm had been meaningful for both he and his wife. “Andrea is the youngest of 13 kids and her family moved from their farm when she was young. She had a passion to relive childhood memories. And she wanted our kids to have those memories, too.”

The three Engel children were skeptical of moving from their city neighborhood full of families to a place that has an Attica address but was far from any neighbors. But Engel said that they were interested in having animals in 4-H and it didn’t take long for them to be enjoying having cattle and growing crops on their 100-acre farm. Their middle son pitched in bringing bales of hay to the barn for the livestock, and enjoyed playing with the five farm dogs they acquired. Engel remembers that at one point his youngest son had 500 rabbits. And his parents once arrived for a birthday party pulling a truck that had two goats—an unexpected birthday gift that all the Engel children enjoyed.

This year, when the Engels moved to a home built in a new development just down the street from the Agricultural Administration building, they left the farm, which now has 50 goats, in the capable hands of their daughter. Engel says they now look forward to visiting the farm on weekends.

Cutting his hourlong commute to minutes is something Engel knows he’ll appreciate as he assumes the dean position in mid-July.

“We have to continue to focus on our global leadership in research, building on those areas where we are great and can be the greatest,” Engel explains as he discusses his first-year priorities. “And we have to concentrate on how we can grow our strengths in extension and undergraduate education. This is a great time to sharpen our strategic plan, work on engaging stakeholders and aligning with university priorities.”

As Engel’s next chapter begins, he looks forward to advancements, changes and growth. But, as always, he returns to his own’s story’s dominant theme.

“Whatever I have done in my career it has always been fueled by my passion for and commitment to agriculture. That runs deep and will never change.”

- Bernie Engel, dean of agriculture

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