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February 21, 2006

Bowles, Oblinger visit Eastern NC

Bowles and Oblinger photo
President Erskine Bowles, left, and Chancellor Jim Oblinger visit the lab at CMAST in Morehead City. (Photos by Becky Kirkland)

“I’d really like to listen today.”

From Morehead City to Kenansville, Erskine Bowles carried this message forth – and repeated it intently – throughout his Jan. 31 tour of Eastern North Carolina. The new University of North Carolina system president visited four cities that day, to learn more about how N.C. State’s research, extension and economic development programs serve the needs of North Carolinians.

“What are your priorities?” he asked throughout the tour, making clear his priority for the day: get the word straight from the horse’s mouth.

Bowles was accompanied by N.C. State Chancellor James L. Oblinger, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean Johnny Wynne and North Carolina Cooperative Extension Director John Ort, among other campus leaders.

Three of the four stops on Bowles’ tour showcased research, teaching and extension programs of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. And, he wasted no time getting down to business at each stop.

After a visit to the Naval Air Depot at Cherry Point to learn about programs in the N.C. State College of Engineering, Bowles headed to Morehead City and the Center for Marine Sciences and Technology (CMAST). The 51,000 square-foot marine laboratory, situated just along the banks of the Bogue Sound, strives to make North Carolina’s seafood industry safer and more competitive. Bowles toured toxicology and fisheries resources labs, visited Carteret County Extension offices and held a town-hall style meeting with the center’s faculty and staff, community leaders and other stakeholders.

“I have a great love and appreciation for this part of North Carolina,” Bowles said. “[The marine sciences] industry presents such a great growth opportunity for our state and our people. It has tremendous potential.”

Bowles took time to speak with nearly every researcher in each of the labs, chatted with Extension agents about their programs, and even passed on a sit-down lunch to extend his tour and focus on the issues being presented to him. (It should be noted, however, that Bowles enjoyed the homemade seafood lunch prepared by Family and Consumer Sciences agents once he had a moment to sit down during the meeting).

Next stop: the Cunningham Agriculture Research Station in Kinston, where research is conducted on major North Carolina field crops such as tobacco, corn, soybeans and cotton. The station also serves as headquarters for the North Carolina Specialty Crops Program, a unique partnership between N.C. State, North Carolina Cooperative Extension and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to develop alternative crops and marketing systems for farmers wishing to expand into niche markets.

Bowles listened intently as Extension personnel and researchers described their programs, from aquaculture to storm water practices. And, just as he’d done in Morehead City, Bowles asked the group for their priorities and ideas on how the university system could play a role.

“I’ve learned that the best ideas come from those working in the field,” he said. “Agriculture is such a big part of North Carolina and its economy. I want to make sure that I understand your priorities and how I can help you.”

He also stressed the importance of securing a solid future for North Carolina agriculture by embracing change and capitalizing on opportunities to expand into new markets.

“I believe we are looking at a bright agricultural future here in North Carolina. There are huge markets and the potential is here,” he said. “But there are enormous changes taking place in the economy. With the loss of tobacco, we have to move toward new crops, opportunities and markets. If we’re going to be competitive globally, we need to make investments in agriculture.”

Bowles ended his day at a reception in Duplin County with members of Cooperative Extension’s State Advisory Council, held at the new Duplin County Agriculture Center. The former chairman of North Carolina’s Rural Prosperity Task Force opened his remarks saying, “I am so thrilled to see this facility. It is about time rural North Carolina got something nice.”

Erskine Bowles

State Advisory Council Chairman Wanda Denning opened the meeting with Bowles by describing how SAC’s 31 members provide leadership for the state’s 20,000-member advisory leadership system. In every county, advisory leaders help Cooperative Extension design, implement and plan programs to meet identified local needs. Denning also pointed out that Extension’s advisors were instrumental in advocating for the state’s $3.1 billion higher education bonds approved by voters in 2000.

Bowles described his six priorities for the UNC System. They include preparing K-12 teachers, developing relationships with the state’s community colleges, keeping universities accessible and affordable, retaining and graduating students, ensuring quality education and recruiting and retaining great faculty.

Bowles recently spent nine months in Asia, overseeing tsunami relief. He described seeing classrooms of Chinese first graders studying mathematics on computers – in English. Contrast that with the reality that only 18 of 100 eighth graders in North Carolina today will earn a four-year college degree.

“That was okay in my era when there were plenty of low-skilled, moderate income jobs,” he said. “We have to get more people better educated in America in order to compete.”

Bowles outlined some of the strengths and challenges that lie before the university system. He described the state’s strong support for higher education at the rate of $2 billion per year, but added that the state’s budget faces enormous pressures from rising Medicaid costs. The state universities’ $1 billion research budget comes mainly from federal resources, which also face tremendous pressures, he said.

“What are your priorities?” he asked throughout the tour, making clear his priority for the day: get the word straight from the horse’s mouth.

He also wants to keep the state universities’ tuition as low as possible. “Here we face an enormous challenge at a time when we have fewer and fewer resources,” he said.

What did Bowles learn about Cooperative Extension during his tour? “I have been living in the past of what Extension does today. I didn’t know you were in urban counties,” he said. “You are doing a zillion different things to make a difference in your communities.

Bowles said he would like to meet with Extension’s state advisors on a regular basis. “Let me know how I can make your job better,” he told the advisors. “I want to see those resources get to where they are needed. Thank you very much for all you do.”

--S. Stanard and N. Hampton

Posted by Natalie at February 21, 2006 02:03 PM