To Build, Enhance, Progress

Michael Boehm portrait

To Build, Enhance, Progress

Interview with IANR Vice Chancellor Michael Boehm
By Lauren Stohlmann

The Morrill Act may have founded the land-grant university system in 1862, but Michael Boehm finds it to be thriving at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 2017.

Boehm became University of Nebraska Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and Harlan Vice Chancellor of the university’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources on January 1, 2017.

Boehm said the university’s main responsibilities reflect the land-grant university values of teaching and learning, research and innovation, outreach and engagement, and his role is to facilitate that work. “I liken myself to be a choreographer or a conductor of an amazing symphony,” he said. 

THE LAND-GRANT MISSION

“The story we all know about the land-grant system is the miraculous outcome during the height of one of the darkest times in our nation’s history – the height of the Civil War,” Boehm said. “You get the sense that education wasn’t just for the privileged; it was really for the citizens of this fledgling nation.”

The land-grant university system was set up to ensure educational access to the citizens of the United States. “But it had a twist,” Boehm said. “It came with discovery and engagement agendas to make sure we were focusing our research and scholarship on issues that would enhance the vitality of local communities.

“And so, that’s the spirit of the land-grant, and it’s as vital, critical and relevant today as it was when Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law,” he said. “It’s a moral obligation that we have because of its direct connection to the people, the place and to agriculture. I’ve come to a place that ‘gets’ that.”

There are 109 land-grant universities in the United States and its territories; they often are referred to as “the people’s universities.” The University of Nebraska truly is the people’s university, Boehm said; not only does it help our students learn, it also serves the state’s residents through one-on-one outreach. 

ADDRESSING CHALLENGES

The Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ base on the East Campus of the university has a statewide reach. Its main focus areas are people, and the food, water, natural resources, businesses and communities that sustain them. 

It’s a progressive, global organization. Some of the most recognized scientists in the world are working on challenges such as hunger, poverty, animal and human health, new treatments and vaccines for animal and human diseases and sustainability of natural resources and the environment. Boehm, a scientist himself, understands the need for diverse, collaborative, leading-edge scientists and technology to solve these, and other challenges. 

“We have a footprint in so many parts of the world right now; our faculty and staff are global in their scope. These are global grand challenges that we talk about, whether that’s poverty, or how we’re going to feed a growing world, or how we are going to treat the planet so we have a durable, resilient, sustainable ecosystem,” he said. 

POPULATION

The world population is expected to increase to more than 9 billion before 2050, which will result in increased demands on water and natural resources to feed that population. 

“I absolutely believe Nebraska has a critical role today, but the potential for having an expanded global role is huge,” Boehm said. Nebraska’s distinctive agroecosystem, he explained, ranges from the Panhandle, where there is a high elevation, low rainfall and sandy soils, to the eastern part of the state, which is nearly at sea level and has more rainfall and glacial till soils. Between west and
east are the Sandhills and rich farmland, under which lies the High Plains Aquifer (also called the Ogallala Aquifer) that provides water for crop irrigation, livestock, manufacturing and people. Nebraska’s agroecosystem from west to east is a robust, living laboratory for IANR’s researchers, with global applicability.

MORAL OBLIGATIONS

Boehm believes the university has a moral obligation to Nebraska’s people, to the state and to agriculture. Nebraska is a place that shares a common vision and purpose of connecting the university to residents in all 93 counties of the state, while driving the institute forward. 

The current world population of more than 7 billion includes “the bottom billion,” he said – the people in the world who are chronically hungry or literally starving. The Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources priorities are not only global; they’re also local, to the point of looking at poverty, hunger, health care and children in Nebraska’s cities, towns and rural areas – and how IANR can engage in issues affecting people. 

Even though it doesn’t seem possible in a food-producing state like Nebraska, Boehm said 13.2 percent of Nebraska’s people are food-insecure, in both urban and rural areas.

“Nearly 250,000 Nebraskans wonder where their next meal is coming from, and of those Nebraskans who are hungry, 100,000 of those are children. That comes back to thinking about the future,” he said. Many Nebraskans must drive a long way to buy groceries or access health care, often on a tight budget. 

“I think the potential is in our children and in a changing environment,” he said. Part of that changing environment is using the university’s scientific knowledge and creative works to improve lives for people and animals, not just at home, but everywhere.

Nebraska and the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources integrate systems very well, Boehm said. 

“It’s figuring out where we can harness the intellectual capacity and then really invest in those places that allow us to bring together all the talent that we have to help make a difference in the world.”

WHO’S MISSING?

A critical component to maximizing the impact of the university depends on recognizing, talking about and appreciating differences and respecting individuals’ dignity, he said. 

“We need everyone engaged to achieve the kinds of impacts IANR hopes to make. We absolutely need everybody’s best,” Boehm said. 

Engagement in teaching and research can’t occur effectively if the university doesn’t look like and embody the diversity of Nebraska. 

“We have to pay attention to every single piece of difference and in some manner, look like and embody the communities we’re trying to engage,” he said. “As a leader, I try to model the behavior that does not blame, but rather creates safe spaces for the different stories, narratives and implicit biases to be exposed, explored and leveraged. The way I’d like to handle it in IANR is simple – for various communities and cultures within IANR, ask the simple question: ‘who’s missing’? What’s missing when those voices and those perspectives are absent?’ And then the hard question is: ‘what are we going to do about it?’”

ABOUT BOEHM

Boehm was a first-generation college student who attended a liberal arts college in Ohio for his undergraduate education. There, he learned about his passion for science and for humanity. He understood that science was important and parallel to that, the understanding of what it means to be a human and how humans engage in the world around them. He earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Ohio State University, where he was a professor of plant pathology, becoming a frequently published and recognized authority on turfgrass diseases and on the management of Fusarium head blight of wheat and barley. He served as chair of the Department of Plant Pathology and as vice provost for academic and strategic planning at Ohio State prior to coming to Nebraska.

Boehm’s leadership style is an amalgamation of his personal and professional journey, including his nearly 21-year military career. He joined the Army Reserve in 1985 and trained as a combat medic. He was called to active duty after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, serving as a microbiologist with the U.S. Navy as a testing specialist for bio-threat agents. 

As a reservist, Boehm said he lived with one foot in the military world and one foot in the civilian world. “It was practice at keeping two opposing views of the world in focus at the same time, and to understand how things that seem diametrically opposed actually live some way in harmony,” he said. At the same time, Boehm developed as a leader. 

“One of the most valuable lessons I learned in uniform, first and foremost, is that it is about the mission and it’s about your team.” Teams who trust their leaders and one another are effective, he said. 

“If you don’t have trust, whether it’s with your family, friends or colleagues, then you might just as well hang it up.” Trust is his foundation, he said, and right on top of that are the U.S. Navy’s core values of honor, courage and commitment. His other values include transparency, teamwork and inclusivity.