CSUS alumnus spotlight: Ted Alter
“Lead in whatever you’re doing by making it possible for others to lead.” Ted reflects on his experiences as an interdisciplinary researcher, educator, and academic administrator at Penn State University for over 45 years.
Working with community members and researchers from different fields is one way people can conduct more meaningful research. Also known as interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity, working across many research areas can shape how researchers interact with and impact the world.
Ted Alter learned about and began practicing interdisciplinarity in his community-engaged teaching and research when he attended MSU.
Ted decided to come to MSU for his master’s degree in 1971. Raleigh Barlowe, a former chair of the Department of Resource Development (now known as the Department of Community Sustainability), was influential in helping Ted make his decision to attend MSU for his graduate programs.
“It was the intellectual experience and the people that helped me decide to come to MSU,” Ted notes.
After completing his master’s degree, Ted continued at MSU to pursue his Ph.D. His first job out of his doctorate program was with Penn State University. Ted has been actively teaching and researching there ever since. During his four decades at Penn State, he has also served in various administrative roles including Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, Interim Dean of Agricultural Sciences, Director of Penn State Extension, and Associate VP of Outreach and Extension.
In his experience, working with others to achieve their goals has been one of the most memorable and fulfilling parts of his work.
Read below to learn about Ted’s thoughtful approach to his work and to understand why MSU was influential in shaping his career.
Degree and Program:
M.S. and Ph.D. in the Department of Resource Development (now known as the Department of Community Sustainability)
1973 with M.S. and 1976 with Ph.D.
Why did you choose your program and why MSU?
I had a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Rochester. I was very interested in issues of economic geography, development and public sector economics, and community and regional development. The MSU Department of Resource Development provided the opportunity to pursue all of those and to integrate them. I really was inclined to come to Resource Development because of the opportunity for interdisciplinary work.
Raleigh Barlowe understood that. After talking with him and looking more closely at the program during my visit, I decided to come to Michigan State. At first, I couldn’t come because I was drafted during the Vietnam War. Raleigh stayed in touch and when I finished my military service there was a spot for me. The way Raleigh treated me as a prospective grad student also influenced my decision to come to MSU. He has influenced my personal practice during the 45 plus years I’ve been working as a professor and administrator in higher education.
What is your favorite memory from your experience in the Department of Resource Development?
There were many. One thing that stands out is that we had a very passionate, intelligent, motivated, and civically-engaged graduate student cohort that I came in with. We had lots of good intellectual time together and we had a lot of fun, too. Our professors were integral to fostering that culture on both fronts. That experience was important for me. In my own career as a faculty member, department head, and dean, we’ve always made a point of supporting graduate student cohorts socially as well as academically.
Another one of the highlights was the accessibility and opportunity to engage and learn from people like Raleigh Barlowe, Ray Vlasin, Milton Steinmueller, Alan Schmid, and Warren Samuels, and others who were professors in resource development, agricultural economics, and economics. They all were always interested in having a conversation. The professors really made the difference in my time in the department and at MSU.
Some of the coursework that I took as a graduate student in economics, ag economics, and resource development is also a highlight for me. Certain courses were particularly challenging and provocative and were great learning experiences. Those experiences shaped my professional aspirations, my scholarship, and my personal and professional practice.
Some of the work on land-use policy that Raleigh Barlowe was doing had an emphasis on equity and inclusion, in the broadest sense of those words. So did the coursework and research I encountered in agricultural economics and economics. The questions about who’s at the table and who should be at the table, and why people who should be are not at the table–those are the kinds of questions we asked. As a 25-30 year old graduate student who came of age during the 1960s and the Vietnam era, that was really great stuff.
The professors really made the difference in my time in the department and at MSU.
Also, East Lansing was a pleasant place to live. There was a lot of political debate and advocacy happening in the community during the Vietnam War. It was an exciting place to be.
What did you do right after graduation?
When I graduated from MSU, I went to Penn State as an Assistant Professor. I had teaching, research, and extension responsibilities. That’s what I knew, that’s what I saw at MSU, and that’s what I learned that academics did. This was not the best way start one’s academic career. You’ve got to have high performance levels in all three areas and that’s challenging because of the time and effort it takes. Fortunately, I was able to navigate all that.
What do you do in your current work?
I have mostly research responsibility at this point and some teaching responsibility.
My research is all applied, community-based research. It is always connected with community and citizens. The issues that people are facing is what drives my work, so my research always starts with the community and I always take it back to the community. The research that I do also informs the teaching that I do.
I’ve been working in Australia for the last 10 years on the broad issues of community-led action for invasive animal management. We’ve been dealing with what are called “established invasive species”—particularly rabbits, wild pigs, wild dogs, and feral cats. In the last few years I’ve been mainly working with rabbit control. The work that we’ve done with community-led action in the state of Victoria has transformed the biosecurity practices with respect to rabbit management. One of the critical transformations is that, to a great extent, it’s community-led now, not just run by government biosecurity officers.
We worked with landowners and community members to develop an organization called the Victorian Rabbit Action Network (VRAN). It’s a community-led group where community members are driving policy and budgetary decisions. They are working with government to shape management practices across the landscape. It’s a highly unusual partnership and very confronting for government officers and biological scientists who think they are the experts. The idea that a farmer or a station owner who has been on his land for 30 years might know more about the hydrology on that land or rabbit distribution may be hard for the expert biologist to accept. It’s a clash of epistemic politics - whose knowledge counts? Everyone obviously has a contribution to make but sometimes it is hard to get to that point as shared understanding. That is just one of the political aspects of getting to a place of effective community-led action.
We’ve worked over time with our Australian colleagues to foster the culture of community-led action for rabbit management. This work was recognized in 2019 by the United Nations. It was one of the 10 recognitions globally for the United Nations Public Service Award, having to do with diversity of representation in decision-making and contributing to UN Sustainable Development Goal 15 (Life on Land).
What are your most memorable achievements in your career?
None of these achievements are my achievements—they’re truly collective achievements. I’ve always tried my best to work with people in the sense of understanding their perspectives, values, beliefs, and needs, and integrating whatever expertise I may have into the conversation but not deciding or driving it. I am just there to provoke the conversation or be of assistance. With the community-led rabbit management project, we just created the settings for handing off agency for leadership and taking action to community members.
My administrative leadership style is always to position others to lead and succeed. I’ve had lots of opportunity, and I’ve always tried to employ that opportunity to facilitate partnerships with others and to acknowledge and give credit to others. My approach is: “Lead in whatever you’re doing by making it possible for others to lead.”
What thoughts, lessons learned, or advice would you share with current students?
Try to put yourself in spaces that are uncomfortable, intellectually and physically. In spaces that are uncomfortable, you’re really at the intersection of difference. What’s happening at those intersections is that there’s non-redundant information, you’re not hearing the same things, and you’re not talking to the same people. When there’s new information, there’s opportunity for learning new insights and creativity. Intentionally putting yourself in these spaces through your actions, work, reading, travel, and study, I think is critically important. In my experience, acting in this way will have profound implications for your relationships, learning, creativity, and capacity to innovate practical solutions to complex societal problems.
Try to put yourself in spaces that are uncomfortable, intellectually and physically. In spaces that are uncomfortable, you’re really at the intersection of difference... When there’s new information, there’s opportunity for learning new insights and creativity.
Always keep learning and always keep looking for new insights. Keep active and involved in whatever it is you’re doing.
Is there anything else you would like to add about your MSU experience or connection to MSU?
My Ph.D. work was funded by a National Science Foundation grant program, “The Harmoniously Confused World.” It was about training graduate students in transdisciplinarity–bridging disciplines and connecting students with the real world. It exemplified the commitment that MSU had to interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. That’s something that really stands out for me.
MSU is one of the great land grants because of its commitment to excellence in all of its missions. MSU has a genuine focus on the community. I think of the work that’s been going on in Detroit, in various parts of Michigan, and around the world that MSU is involved in.