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New Purdue Ag dean focuses on school’s global leadership

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — In May Karen Plaut became the first woman to hold the position of Glenn W. Sample Dean of Purdue University’s College of Agriculture.

She was named interim dean last summer and decided to apply for the position permanently. She was one of three finalists.

“In the position of interim dean, it gave me the opportunity to try out the position,” Plaut explained. “I realized it’s a position where you can make a big difference. It enlarged the scope of my responsibility.”

Before being named interim dean, she served as senior associate dean of research and faculty affairs in the college. “I’m looking forward to getting to interact with the students,” Plaut said. “In my other role, I worked less with students.” She has been at Purdue since 2010.

Plaut said this isn’t the only time she’s been the first female head of a university department, as she was previously the first female leader of animal sciences at the University of Vermont. “At Purdue, it’s a milestone for me to be the first female dean (in the college of agriculture),” she noted. “But across the country there are a few female deans of colleges of agriculture. I was also the first associate dean of research and that’s even more unusual. I hope I can serve as a role model for other women.”

The college has been listed among the top 10 agriculture and forestry programs worldwide by QS World University Rankings. “That’s a special place to be,” Plaut stated. “There’s a lot you can do with that. It means pressure and pride. We want to be there. It’s a good thing to be. The college was in great shape (when I started) and we’ll continue to move forward.”

In her role, Plaut is responsible for Purdue extension, the Indiana Agricultural Experiment Station and several state regulatory services, along with administering academic programs in the college. One area she plans to focus on is the college’s 2015-2020 strategic plan.

The plan is about global leadership, Plaut said. It includes a number of goals, including becoming the world’s leading land-grant college of agriculture, food, life and natural resource sciences; and ensuring the college is recognized globally as the preferred source of undergraduates in agriculture, food, natural resources and life science. She was involved with developing research initiatives for the plan.

Plaut’s work on the strategic plan was noted by the search advisory committee charged with helping to find a new dean, said Willie Reed, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine and chair of the committee. “Dean Plaut has extensive administrative experience, an excellent research background and understands the role of extension in the state,” he noted. “Each candidate gave us their vision for the college. Her vision was well received. People were comfortable with her style.”

The search committee was looking for candidates with vision and leadership characteristics and the ability to inspire people to achieve their full potential, Reed said.

Plaut was born in New York State and has a bachelor’s degree in animal science from the University of Vermont, a master’s degree in animal nutrition from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in animal science from Cornell University. She was previously on the faculty at the University of Vermont and Michigan State University. In the late 1990s she was the lead scientist for the International Space Station biological research project.

“I’ve always been interested in science,” she said. “I received a microscope as a kid. I’ve also always had an interest in animals. I was able to combine my two loves.”