FAYETTEVILLE -- Jeff Edwards, who has his master's degree and doctorate from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and has been a department head in the university's Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences, has been named that college's new dean.
Edwards will begin his new role Jan. 1, 2024. He will succeed interim Dean Jean-Francois Meullenet, who will return to his role as senior associate vice president for agriculture research and director of the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, the university announced Wednesday. Edwards will also be senior associate vice president for academic programs of the Division of Agriculture.
Though Edwards spent 18 years at Oklahoma State University, starting as an assistant professor and small grains extension specialist in 2004 before attaining the rank of full professor in 2012 -- from 2015 to 2022, he served as head of Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in Stillwater, Okla. -- he feels Arkansas is "home."
"I'm glad I returned to Bumpers College as a department head about a year ago, and I'm grateful for this new opportunity to serve as the dean," he said in a news release from the university. "I look forward to leading the college and raising its profile on both the national and international stage."
Edwards, whose Ph.D. is in crop, soil, and environmental science, has led the UA Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences -- he received an Outstanding Alumni Award from that department in 2018 -- since last year, a department which includes roughly 80 faculty and staff members and serves about 240 students, according to the university.
During his brief tenure, he helped create a formal mentoring program for assistant professors, implemented regular internal communications within the department, and secured funding for two state-of-the-art growth chambers.
He "has accomplished a great deal in a short amount of time, proven himself to be an exceptional leader, and he is known throughout the country for his work in improving agricultural systems and environmental sustainability," UA Provost Terry Martin said in the news release.
His areas of research include wheat variety testing, sustainable agricultural production systems, optimal fertilization strategies for small grains, and development of robust small grains production systems that are adaptable to changing climatic and environmental conditions, according to the university.
Edwards, whose master's degree is in agronomy, has contributed to nearly 100 research publications and received the 2022 Oklahoma Crop Improvement Association Premier Supporter Award, the 2013 National Excellence in Extension Award, the Warth Distinguished Professorship in Agronomy, the 2011 Agronomy Journal Outstanding Reviewer Award, and the 2007 Oklahoma Wheat Growers Association Wheat Promoter of the Year, among other commendations.
"As a former dean of Bumpers College, and in my current position, I have a unique perspective on the specific qualities the dean should possess to aid in the college's overall success, (and Edwards) has demonstrated these qualities," Deacue Fields, UA System vice president for Agriculture, said in the news release. "He has a great vision for integrating functions of the land-grant mission, which will be a tremendous asset to the University of Arkansas and the Division of Agriculture."
Edwards, whose total annual compensation will be $300,000, was selected as Bumpers College dean over a pair of other finalists, Michael Evans and Michael Looper. Both have deep UA-Fayetteville connections.
All three candidates held open forums earlier this fall for the campus community with a theme of "Strengths and Opportunities at the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences." They also discussed trends in agriculture, food, and life sciences education and research.
Evans came to Fayetteville as an assistant professor in 2001. He became a professor in 2009, also serving as interim dean of Bumpers College from 2016-2018, according to the college. He then moved to Virginia Tech University -- his bachelor's degree is from Virginia Tech -- where he is a professor and director of the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences.
Looper has been head of the Department of Animal Science at UA-Fayetteville, where he holds the rank of full professor, since 2011, and his bachelor's and master's degrees in animal science are both from the university, while his Ph.D. in reproductive physiology/animal breeding is from Oklahoma State University, according to Bumpers College.
He spent nearly a decade as a research animal scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, and he's taught at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and New Mexico State University.
As dean, Edwards will lead and oversee the college's academic and research enterprises, student recruitment, and operations, and as senior associate vice president, he will help tackle challenges and explore opportunities in the state's agricultural and rural communities, according to the university. Edwards, who has a bachelor's degree in agriculture from Western Kentucky University, will also continue building academic activities between the university and Division of Agriculture.
A closer relationship between the university and University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture has been a priority for both Fields and UA-Fayetteville Chancellor Charles Robinson, who finalized a memorandum of agreement between the two organizations in September. Though the university and Division of Agriculture have worked together since 1959, they had done so without a formal cooperation agreement.
There have been long-standing differences between the campus and the division -- for example, faculty with appointments in both institutions had to navigate different processes for tenure, as well as finances and facilities -- but the new agreement adumbrates processes and defines roles and responsibilities related to everything from finance, human resources operations and services, to benefits, facilities and space allocation, and management of joint faculty and staff appointments, according to Mary Hightower, chief communications officer for the Division of Agriculture.
It's about "working in a spirit of collaboration and cooperation," Robinson explained in September. "I don't know how we could serve Arkansas if we're divided, [and] we're going to make sure the state benefits from our partnership."
Arkansas agriculture impacts about 270,000 people whose jobs directly or indirectly depend on agriculture, and the $9.6 billion they receive in wages is more than 15% of the state's total labor income, according to the UA System. Agriculture accounts for more than $16 billion of value added to the state's economy and 12% of GDP, greater than any state in the region.