2007 – 5th GCHERA Conference

Two hundred and twenty participants from 47 countries around the world gathered in San Jose, Costa Rica from March 5-8, 2007 for the Fifth Global Conference of the Global Consortium of Higher Education and Research for Agriculture (GCHERA). The focus for the meeting was “Innovation and Leadership for Relevant Change in Agriculture”, referring to the following challenge issued by conference organizers:

Agricultural higher education is in danger of becoming irrelevant, and change is needed. Universities must respond to society’s changing needs, and agriculture must become more economically competitive, socially responsible, and environmentally sustainable in an increasingly globalized world economy.

While recognizing the significant contributions of agricultural faculties, universities and research organizations to the development of their nations over the past decades, many observers, both within and outside the university, have concluded that most agricultural universities have been slow to respond effectively to changing stakeholder and market needs, and are in increasing danger of becoming irrelevant.

The program for this conference was developed to encourage participants to ask themselves if the agricultural universities of the world are responding effectively and creatively to the needs of their stakeholders. Are they effectively selecting incoming students with a true vocation for agriculture? Are agricultural faculties committed to the sustainability of the natural resource base and the health of the planet? Is this reflected in their curricula and research? Do graduates have the knowledge and skills required for promoting sustainable rural development, enabling them to respond to the diverse needs of producers, rural communities, agricultural industries and businesses? Are graduates able to transform their scientific knowledge into relevant innovations, which will reverse the deterioration of the environment and the continued impoverishment of rural communities? Are graduates prepared to become leaders and innovators when they leave the university?

The host for the Fifth Global Conference of GCHERA was EARTH University (www.earth.ac.cr ), a private, international, non-profit university located in Costa Rica and dedicated to education in the agricultural sciences and natural resources in order to contribute to sustainable development in the humid tropics. EARTH’s educational model is based upon four essential pillars: ethical and human values, entrepreneurial spirit, social and environmental awareness, and technical and scientific knowledge. The University’s participatory learning methodology provides a sound education while cultivating creative, innovative, critical and disciplined professionals able to work as part of a team and pursue a strategic, development-oriented vision. EARTH is also an example of an entrepreneurial university with commercial agricultural production and expanding commercial operations.

In addition to developing provocative and relevant program content, conference organizers had two important goals for the Fifth Global Conference. Organizers were especially committed to ensuring that there would be significant participation from countries which have thus far had limited representation in GCHERA, due to lack of economic resources. If GCHERA is to be a truly global consortium, then it is vital to ensure global diversity and representation at its meetings. EARTH University made a special effort to raise funds that would used to support participation from developing countries. As a result, of the 220 participants in the meeting, 81 were from Central America and the Caribbean, 21 were from South America, and 28 were from Africa. Most of these received partial support which was crucial in making it possible for them to attend.

Conference organizers were also committed to developing a format for the conference that would be highly interactive and participatory. Significant time in the schedule was reserved for small group discussion and interaction. Participants came with a vast wealth of experiences and unique perspectives, which when shared, greatly enriched our collective knowledge and understanding of the challenges being faced by institutions of higher education and research in agriculture. A small number of key speakers from around the world were invited presentations pertaining to our conference theme—Innovation and Leadership for Relevant Change in Agriculture.

All participants who wished to were invited to make short oral presentations on their work and experiences as they related to the five conference sub-theme areas – Leadership, Innovation, Entrepreneurship, Environment and Natural Resources, and Government and University Relations. It was important to ensure that there was a logical flow from the overall theme, to the sub-theme presentations by invited speakers, to the oral presentations by participants, and finally to the small group discussions. Participants making presentations were asked not to prepare any visual aids. The format developed for the participant presentations was designed to foster a high level of interaction and discussion among participants, which was considered critical to the program to bring as many different perspectives and experiences into the discussion as possible.

Evaluations of the program completed by participants at the close of the conference indicate that both the content and the format of the meeting were very well received by the majority of the attendees. Conference participants agreed that during the four days of the meeting they had had the opportunity to explore a vision for relevant change to enhance the capacity of universities to respond to society’s changing needs, to make agriculture more economically competitive, socially responsible, and environmentally sustainable in an increasingly globalized world economy.

Sub-theme 1: Leadership

This sub-theme examined the development of leadership on two levels; the first being those structures and processes within the university that foster leadership in students, graduates, and faculty, and the second being those that result in universities emerging as leaders. Many observers have noted that past massive production of graduates has had limited impact on agriculture, and that the success of graduates today depends on the development of skills and attitudes that have been largely ignored by traditional higher education in agriculture. Discussion included such topics as understanding the nature of leadership itself, the selection and admission of students based upon leadership potential, promoting leadership based on ethics and values, creating opportunities for students to become leaders, assessment of institutional effort to produce leaders (i.e. follow-up with graduates), universities as leaders in the integration of research, teaching and community outreach, promotion of leadership in communities, and identifying changes that must take place within universities if they aspire to form leaders.

Sub-theme 2: Innovation

This sub-theme examined innovation on all levels in higher agricultural education; from innovation in curriculum structure, content, delivery, and evaluation, to innovation in governance and organizational structure. Are there innovations in selection and admissions processes that ensure that the desired exit profile for graduates is achieved? How can universities foster creativity in students? How can faculties promote innovation in teaching? Are there innovations in institutional finance and fundraising that can help institutions achieve greater economic sustainability? What about scientific innovation in agriculture and natural resources? What are the new frontiers in agricultural research? How can science and innovation accelerate sustainable development?.

Sub-theme 3: Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship was examined in the context of the academic program, the university’s internal policies and organization, and also as the university relates to the external environment. How does the university effectively train students to become entrepreneurs? What is the role of values in entrepreneurship? How do you foster an ethical and entrepreneurial mindset in students and faculty? How is entrepreneurship embedded in course content and objectives? What is the role of the university as an entrepreneur, both in becoming involved in business and in creating businesses? How can the effectiveness of the university as an entrepreneur be evaluated, i.e. number of patents and trademarks, contribution of commercial activities to operational budget, etc? Discussion also included topics such as graduates as successful entrepreneurs, their impact, the role of the university in creating businesses in neighboring communities, non-traditional entrepreneurship, promotion of innovation and invention, and eco-entrepreneurship, including waste management and agro or eco-tourism.

Sub-theme 4: Government and University Relations

Discussion in this sub-theme area focused upon relationships between the university and government, and the establishment of effective, mutually beneficial collaboration. How can the university support government policies, programs, and new economic and social agendas? What is the role of the university in the national and international political, economic and social debate? Discussion in this sub-theme included agricultural education and research as an engine of economic growth, the university as a consultant and source of technical expertise and backstopping to the government, university financing, university governance, autonomy and public and private partnerships.

Sub-theme 5: Environment and Natural Resources

The focus of higher agricultural education has been steadily shifting away from an exclusive emphasis on production to the development of integrated, sustainable systems–largely due to looming environmental threats such as deforestation, soil erosion, water scarcity and distribution, climate change, loss of biodiversity, and dependency on fossil fuels. This sub-theme looked at changes taking place within the university itself to address the future of our natural resource base, as well as how the university is addressing these needs in the external environment. What are universities doing to systematically impart the knowledge and values that will assure graduates who are committed to sustainable production and the protection of our natural resources? How are research and teaching linked? Is the university a living model of what it teaches—do we “practice what we preach”? What are universities doing to promote sustainable development? In addition to pedagogy and curriculum issues, discussion included topics such as biodiversity as a resource for development, alternative energy, and innovations in resource management.

For more information on EARTH University, please click here.