Dean Helene Dillard is retiring in 2024 as leader of the University of California, Davis, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, or CA&ES, after 10 years of service. A national search for a new dean will begin in December, and Dillard will retire once her successor is in place.
During her tenure as dean, Dillard established several key initiatives, engaged many internal and external partners, and led the college’s efforts to improve the lives of Californians and people around the world. Her legacy and commitment to the college, its mission and campus is expansive and transformative. Throughout her tenure, she has championed and embodied the spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration to address the most pressing issues facing agriculture, the environment, and human and social needs.
Comfortable around students, industry players and stakeholders, and government and international leaders, Dillard is an adept listener who has a knack for finding common ground and bridging the gap between disparate communities and setting a path forward to success.
“Dean Dillard is an Aggie through and through, and she exemplifies all that is best about our campus,” said Mary Croughan, provost and executive vice chancellor. “She is a two-time alumna, a brilliant researcher, an internationally recognized leader in her field, and as kind and compassionate a person as you could ever hope to meet. She is nearly synonymous with the campus, and it is hard to imagine UC Davis without her. Dean Dillard will be dearly and deeply missed.”
Her departure from the college is bittersweet — while she has deeply treasured her role as dean, she is looking forward to spending more time with family and enjoying the outdoor spaces she helped steward.
“It has been an incredible honor to lead such an amazing college — I am so proud of the faculty, staff and students who remain dedicated to our mission, working to serve California, the nation and the world. Every day they show up committed and engaged, and I feel privileged to have played such a pivotal role in advancing and growing the college and UC Davis these past 10 years,” says Dillard.
A broad portfolio
As leader of the agricultural school ranked No. 1 in the nation and No. 2 in the world, she has served as the chief academic and administrative officer of the college, which includes 14 departments, 29 centers and institutes, more than 7,600 undergraduate students, approximately 320 faculty and 585 staff. She also manages programmatic responsibilities for the college’s Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension.
She supported leadership and staff through several renovation and infrastructure projects, such as six new greenhouses, including a 14,400-square-foot greenhouse to safeguard an important grapevine collection from red blotch disease and other pathogens; new irrigation and water management initiatives; major upgrades to the Center for Aquatic Biology and Aquaculture; the installation of a new indoor vertical farm to develop innovative solutions for food security and improved water use; and a new and innovative goat dairy and creamery.
During the pandemic, Dillard navigated a reduction in federal funding and unavoidable budget cuts while still managing to overhaul teaching spaces to facilitate better online learning and remote work environments. She also oversaw the implementation of safety measures to support staff and faculty who attended to the immediate needs of several thousand animals and acres of research fields and orchards.
A focus on student success
Dillard has remained incredibly dedicated to student success throughout her tenure. In partnership with the associate dean of undergraduate academic programs, she improved academic advising services and increased the ratio of students to advisors within the college and embedded a mental health counselor in the program. She elevated experiential learning both in and outside the classroom and expanded dean’s circle funding to provide financial support for field trips, service learning and external research at the Bodega Marine Laboratory.
Dillard’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is extensive. She led the campus pilot to incorporate diversity statements into faculty hirings; created and co-leads the college-level DEI committee; and supported the launch of Aggie Jumpstart, a program that promotes inclusive academic excellence and student success among first-generation, low-income and underserved students. She remains a tireless advocate for listening and amplifying the voices of all faculty, staff and students.
Over the past decade, the college has received more than $442 million in private philanthropic support. This includes the largest gift ever from an individual donor to UC Davis, $50 million, which paved the way for the establishment of the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Center for Agricultural Innovation to help shape the future of sustainable food production.
A career of accolades and history of research
A scientist and educator, Dillard is recognized widely for her contributions in plant pathology research, inclusive teaching and fostering diversity. She is a fellow of the American Phytopathological Society where she received the Excellence in Extension Award and was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2021. Dillard also received the Walter A. Robinson Community Champion award from the African Continuum at UC Davis in recognition of her commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion at UC Davis and received the New York Farmers Medal and the Outstanding Faculty Award from the Cornell College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
Prior to her appointment at UC Davis, Dillard was a professor of plant pathology, a Cooperative Extension specialist and associate dean of two colleges at Cornell University. Her research focused on the biology, ecology and management of fungal pathogens that cause diseases in vegetables. Her research interests included sustainable disease management strategies, integrated pest management, epidemiology, and host, pathogen and environmental actions.
Working with industry, communities
As a former CE specialist, she understands the deep value of listening to and working directly with communities and industry in the field. She was instrumental in securing the working title of Professor of Cooperative Extension, and she supported the creation of the Making Connections program, which provides opportunities for faculty and industry to foster a greater understanding of how research and applied work intersect and benefit each other.
“Dean Dillard’s experience as a professor and researcher with an extension assignment made her uniquely qualified to serve as dean of this country’s top College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. She came to the position with a deep understanding of the importance of the public service mission of land grant universities and building relationships with stakeholders for real-time feedback to enhance the value of research to solve the most critical issues of our times,” said California Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross. “Since then, she has embraced a vision for research and education that leaves her organization in a better position to generate the talent and tools that California needs. As a colleague, as a friend, and as a leader, Helene has been engaged, thoughtful and committed, even through the most challenging of circumstances. She has distinguished herself and honored California’s agricultural community with her service.”