Chris van Kessel Steps Down as Department Chair

Professor Chris van Kessel, UC Davis
Professor Chris van Kessel, UC Davis

Chris van Kessel, the inaugural chair of the Department of Plant Sciences, stepped down from the chair position at the end of June. In 2004, under the leadership of then-Dean Neal Van Alfen, four UC Davis departments — Agronomy, Environmental Horticulture, Pomology, and Vegetable Crops — merged into the new Department of Plant Sciences, making it one of the largest departments on campus.

In an interview with Chris van Kessel, he acknowledged the contributions of faculty and staff in making the department merger so successful. He credited staff with eagerly supporting the merger, and driving its success by developing a model for the specialized administrative and field units in the department.

Acknowledging faculty, van Kessel said, “The strength of the department is diversity and the creation of a spectrum from basic research all the way to delivery.” He noted that there is a lot of interdisciplinary work since the merger, and that there are no “silos” between the former departments. “We have a focus on our land-grant mission, which includes our commodities and stakeholders. We make sure that our research goes all the way through the pipeline and is delivered to these groups.”

From left, incoming interim chair Joe DiTomaso, and outgoing department chair Chris van Kessel
From left, incoming interim chair Joe DiTomaso, and outgoing department chair Chris van Kessel

Helene Dillard, Dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said, “Chris van Kessel has done an outstanding job serving as the inaugural chair of the plant sciences department. Under his leadership, he strategically strengthened the faculty research, teaching, and extension/outreach efforts, and helped the department members realize synergies in key areas.”

Van Kessel cited the Hort CRSP (now called the Horticulture Innovation Lab) as an example of a successful synergy, noting that the merger of multiple departments contributed to UC Davis getting federal funding for the Hort CRSP. Had the prior departments not merged, the synergy may not have existed to develop the Hort CRSP proposal.

Working Style

In a typical week, van Kessel spent more than half of his time (up to three-quarters) tending to department chair responsibilities. His personal strength was making himself readily accessible and trying to reply to every email each day. He maintained his faculty office, but spent most of his time in the chair’s office so that people knew where to find him.

During his 12 years as chair, the department hired 22 faculty — 11 female and 11 male. On behalf of the department, van Kessel is proud of the new hires, and that the prior departments blended into a new department with no factions.

His success as a faculty member and as chair of the new and large department led to van Kessel receiving the college’s “Award of Distinction for Outstanding Faculty” in 2015. Faculty comments on his role as department chair were exemplary. Some of his other accomplishments are listed here.

Betsy and Chris van Kessel at the department's Pumpkin Social in 2015.
Betsy and Chris van Kessel at the department’s Pumpkin Social in 2015.

Next Steps

Between now and his retirement in December, van Kessel is working on a new project — a literature review looking at the value of soil organic matter and how it relates to yield; specifically, whether the value of soil organic matter can be quantified in terms of yield, and whether it is offset by climate change.

Chris van Kessel was eager to return to his research, but seemed just a little forlorn at stepping down from the chair position.

With great warmth, van Kessel’s closing interview remark was, “What a ride it’s been!”

[Joe DiTomaso is serving as interim department chair, for about a year, until a new chair is selected. Next month, we’ll give an overview of DiTomaso’s vision as interim chair.]

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