Sonny Ramaswamy looks for ways to raise the bar at OSU
By MITCH LIES
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Some Oregon State University professors might want to read up on speed dating.
The new dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences once employed speed dating as a way to introduce Purdue University professors to one another and the work they were doing.
"We brought the faculty together in this room and every three minutes we blew a whistle and they had to get up and move," said Sonny Ramaswamy. "We told them, you've got three minutes to tell the other individual what you are doing.
"It resulted in multiple new grants," Ramaswamy said. "They were totally shocked. They were saying, 'Oh my gosh. You do this?'"
OSU faculty and constituents can expect such out-of-the-box thinking from the 57-year-old college administrator who started Aug. 1 as dean of the agricultural college and director of the experiment station.
And Ramaswamy might need every tool he can find to lead the college out of a budget deficit and into a future replete with big dreams.
"I want to start building back up to the greatness that comes from having a very competitive faculty," he said recently. "We want to set the agenda. We want to go to Washington (D.C.) and Salem and set the agenda for what agriculture is about."
Ramaswamy replaces Thayne Dutson, who retired last year. He most recently was director of the experiment station at Purdue. Prior to that he worked at universities in Kansas and Mississippi and received his doctorate in entomology from Rutgers University in New Jersey.
He grew up amid poverty in India's fourth-largest city.
"It was literally hand-to-mouth," he said of his childhood in Bangalore.
The youngest of four boys raised by a widow, Ramaswamy early on realized education was his ticket out of poverty. He flourished in school and eventually made his way to the U.S.
"My mom insisted education was very important," Ramaswamy said. "And she instilled in us that accountability is very important, responsibility is very important and making a difference is very important."
All four brothers today are successful. One is chief of surgery at a medical school, another is a geneticist in San Diego, and the third brother owns a packaging company that employs 1,500 in Bangalore.
Ramaswamy said he was content at Purdue and probably would have stayed there had it not been for a persistent headhunter.
"When I was contacted by the head hunter, I thought, why would I want to move to Oregon? Indiana has a phenomenal economy, very stable. Purdue is an outstanding university. And I had a great job as head of the experiment station," he said.
At the last minute, however, after several requests from the headhunter, Ramaswamy changed his mind.
"I decided, I'm going to throw my hat in the ring," he said. "I figured I'd never been to Oregon. If I get called for an interview, I get to come to Oregon and see what Oregon is all about."
When he looked more closely at the university, Ramaswamy said he was amazed at the talent at OSU.
"I said, holy cow, this place is excellent," he said. "It has some incredible stars."
Ramaswamy said he also fell in love with the beauty of the state.
And, Ramaswamy said, he relishes a challenge.
"That was one of the deciding factors for my coming here," he said. "I love challenges."
Ramaswamy is looking at several methods for addressing the college's budget shortfall, including shifting some salary from the state's general fund to federal grants and splitting positions with Washington State University and the University of Idaho.
One of the first directives Ramaswamy put forward involves attempting to quantify the level of attention each of the state's crops receives.
He also asked unit heads from the college and the experiment station to put forward 15 percent budget cuts.
He plans to use that as a starting point.
"I'm not a socialist," he said. "I don't believe in cutting everybody equally. We're going to play to our strengths.
"And we are absolutely going to protect the fundamental nature of this college, which is agriculture," he said.
Eventually, Ramaswamy wants the College of Agriculture to be among the nation's top-tier agriculture colleges.
Today, he said, when policy makers look to agricultural scientists to help shape policy, they call on Cornell University, the University of California-Davis, Texas A&M University or the University of Illinois.
"We want to get our faculty on those sorts of things," he said.
"My competition isn't the University of Oregon or Portland State University," Ramaswamy said. "My competition is Cornell, UC-Davis, Purdue, the University of Illinois. That's who I want our faculty to compete with, absolutely the best in addressing these very complex issues and problems humanity faces."
Staff writer Mitch Lies is based in Salem. E-mail: email@example.com.