Levon Esters, Building on the Land-Grant Legacy
In his new role as dean of the Graduate School, Levon Esters brings 20 years of higher ed experience and a unique perspective on both Penn State and the power of graduate education.
Levon Esters grew up on the south side of Chicago, a fact that he knows sometimes throws people for a loop. “When you share that,” he says with a laugh, “the first thing folks say is, ‘How did a guy from the south side of Chicago get into ag?’” However unlikely Esters’ path from big-city childhood to a career in agricultural sciences education, it has followed a consistent logic: Throughout, he has studied and worked at land-grant institutions, in roles that have prioritized equity, opportunity, and mentorship.
That path has now brought Esters ’03 PhD Agr back to Penn State: In December, he was announced as the new dean of the Graduate School and vice provost for graduate education. We spoke with Esters—who most recently worked as an ag sciences professor and associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion and faculty affairs for Purdue Polytechnic Institute—about the roots of his interest in academia, the excitement of returning to one of his alma maters, and the value of graduate education in the 21st century.
PENN STATER: Welcome back to Happy Valley. You finished your doctoral work in ag education here 20 years ago—what makes this the right time for you to come back to Penn State?
ESTERS: Several things. One, I enjoyed my time at Penn State. I can’t say enough about my experience here, the professors I was able to take courses from, the mentorship of [former vice provost and ag administrator] Blannie Bowen. Another thing was this opportunity to give back. I’ve been focusing a lot of my work in the graduate education space at Purdue over the last 12 years, but I saw this role as an opportunity to make an impact on a larger scale, not only at University Park but across the campus system. It’s an opportunity to contribute to a place that’s been good to me and build on what my predecessors did. In many ways, it’s the place where it all started for me in terms of my career.
PENN STATER: What do you see as the strengths of the Graduate School?
ESTERS: There’s a strong track record and reputation across the country of the work being done in the graduate educational equity program; they do really good work in terms of meeting the needs of students of color. Being able to support an office like that is something I’m looking forward to. The commitment to providing students with experiences to engage in international work is another draw. The other opportunity that really piques my interest is Penn State’s focus on providing students with interdisciplinary experiences, trying to ensure that when they graduate, they have an opportunity to pursue careers that are a good fit for their skills. There’s also a push to really focus on mentoring, and that’s been my space for my entire career.
PENN STATER: You mentioned the mentorship of Blannie Bowen, who spent three decades here as an administrator, primarily with the College of Agricultural Sciences and the Graduate School, and retired in 2017 as vice provost for academic affairs. What can you share about that relationship?
ESTERS: I can’t say enough about him. He had a very high standard—he was tough—but I appreciated it. He was a great mentor. A lot of how I am as a mentor, how I’ve been able to build a pipeline of Black graduate students at Purdue, I learned from him. I learned what goes into creating programs, what it takes to create programs that focus on students of color, and what it takes for those programs to be successful. He was also savvy when it came to statistics and research design. I credit a lot of my success to him. He taught me the ways of the academy, he taught me what it means to be an academic and how to navigate this space. I wouldn’t be sitting on this call with you today if it weren’t for him.
PENN STATER: Can you talk a bit about your path to academia?
ESTERS: My dad was a psychology professor, a great, smart man, and he had interests in a lot of different areas. One of the areas was agriculture. And he had a small hobby farm in the southwest part of Michigan; it was like 7 acres, and we raised blueberries. So I got my first taste of agriculture in that respect. As a kid growing up in Chicago, my interest was wanting to play basketball and hang with my friends in the city, but I still developed an appreciation for it.
Fast forward, I went away to college at two HBCUs—the first was Florida A&M University. I was undecided on a major, but I had an interest in business. One day I asked a friend of mine from Chicago what his major was, and he told me agricultural business. I was like, “Wow, that’s interesting, what is that?” I talked to his adviser, and he proceeded to explain to me what agribusiness was about, and it piqued my interest. The way I was thinking about it, if I majored in ag business, I would have the best of both worlds: I would have that business acumen, and I could also navigate the agricultural sector. I thought that would increase the prospects of me having a job when I graduated. When I went back to Chicago after graduation, my first job was a management trainee with Walgreens. I didn’t like that, and my dad told me about the Chicago High School of Agricultural Sciences.
PENN STATER: I want to ask you about that—it sounds like a fascinating institution.
ESTERS: It is. It’s the largest urban agricultural high school in the United States, a very rich history. And it just so happened that the agribusiness career pathways coordinator and teacher was leaving the school. They hired me to teach ag business, with the understanding that I would pursue my teaching certificate. So I did. I was there for about 3 1/2 years, and then I went to North Carolina A&T State University to pursue my master’s degree in ag education. Blannie Bowen is an A&T alum, and he just so happened to be speaking at a banquet, and we struck up a conversation. I told him I was interested in getting a Ph.D., and he said, “Here’s my card, keep in touch.” So I found my way to Penn State, and he was my adviser.
PENN STATER: I’m curious how your HBCU experience prepared you for your studies and work at a place like Penn State, a much larger institution, and obviously very different demographically.
ESTERS: I enjoyed my time at Florida A&M and North Carolina A&T—they are two of the top HBCUs in the country, part of the land-grants, the “1890s” of the second Morrill Act. I had a great experience at those institutions. A lot of who I am was cultivated at Florida A&M and A&T. If you know anything about the history of HBCUs, what they do for Black students, they instill a sense of identity and confidence. And again, I’m from Chicago, my K-through-eight school was an all-Black school, my high school—a very good high school with great academics—was like 98% Black. So I had that academic preparation and sense of identity growing up, and then that continued when I went to two HBCUs. So when I started this journey to Penn State, I was confident in my abilities. I had proven myself, and I knew I was going to be working with someone who had an unparalleled track record in our discipline. It’s funny, when I first stepped on campus, when class let out, I would see that sea of students, it was a little bit intimidating [laughs]. But once I got into the thick of things, we had great faculty and staff in our department, and I had great peers. So I left Penn State with a good taste in my mouth.
PENN STATER: I’m sure you know that that’s not necessarily a common experience for many Black alumni here.
ESTERS: I know. One of my goals is to support my staff, my college, and across Penn State’s system, in how we can make the experience better for all students, but students of color especially. I’ve heard many stories, whether it be Iowa State, where I worked for about five years, Purdue, Penn State, you name it, across the country, I’ve heard the stories where those experiences are not like mine.
PENN STATER: Can you talk a bit more about diversity in ag specifically? What are the challenges there, and what motivates you in that space?
ESTERS: I think it goes back to my 1890 roots, having attended two 1890s, FAMU and A&T, being around colleges of ag at each of those institutions, and seeing people that looked like myself who had an interest in ag. And let me go back some more, to when I was at the Chicago High School of Ag Sciences. To know that there are Black students that, when they are introduced to the world of agriculture, can develop an interest, was a motivation for me. To know that, and to be a role model, so that these students see someone like myself standing in front of them. And then to be at Iowa State and Purdue, for these students to see a Black man in ag, doing well, trying to provide opportunities for other students. Just the excitement of that, being able to engage and show students there are opportunities for you in this space, that’s what’s kept me here.
I think also, because there aren’t many Black people in ag, especially in my space in ag education, and following in the footsteps of folks like Blannie, I look at it as a way of carrying the torch. Seeing so many of my students do well, as faculty, program coordinators, directors—to say I had a hand in that continues to fuel me to do what I can do to help others.
PENN STATER: Can you talk a bit about the teaching and research focus in your career thus far, and how that might inform your role here?
ESTERS: After I graduated from Penn State, my first job was at Iowa State. I started my career focusing primarily on undergraduate students; I was in teacher education, so I helped prepare students to be teachers. I taught undergraduate students for the five years I was at Iowa State, and then I moved to Purdue. The first two years or so there, I was still in teacher education, but then I decided to shift my focus strictly to graduate education. For the last 10 to 12 years, that’s been my bread and butter. I’ve taught statistics and learning theory to graduate students, I’ve taught research design and data analysis. In terms of research, I focus a lot on urban ag education, but what I’ve become known for primarily is the work I’ve done on mentoring. I also have an interest in the experiences of Black faculty members, and on developing partnerships with 1890 institutions.
PENN STATER: There’s been a lot written lately about the difficulties facing higher education more broadly. What challenges have your attention?
ESTERS: Well, you have demographic shifts that are occurring, you have increasing racial and ethnic diversity, decreasing enrollment numbers, and an increase in first-generation students. These demographic shifts are going to impact the landscape of graduate education. You also have to find—and all schools are experiencing this—a way to create innovative funding models to support students. You also have DEI, so, how do you recruit and retain graduate students of color? There’s the mental health and well-being of students, and the need to create safe environments, something that’s caught the attention of deans across the country. And then at the graduate level, how do we create career pathways for students who may not have an interest in being faculty members, who may not have an interest in the academy? That’s an important element of this.
PENN STATER: What are your thoughts on how a graduate school fits in with the broader university community? There’s sometimes a sense that grad students don’t necessarily have the same sort of connection to an institution that undergrads do.
ESTERS: I think it goes back to the land-grant mission. Penn State is a land-grant, and at the end of the day, land-grants were created to provide access and opportunity for students. I see graduate school being part of that space, or just an extension of that, providing access and opportunity for students who want to pursue a post-baccalaureate degree or professional degrees. I think keeping in mind that we’re a land-grant, we’re here to provide access and opportunity, that’s what the grad school can do. I’ll also say, there are undergraduate students walking across campus today at Penn State who have an interest in more access and more opportunity, and for many students that will be achieved by pursuing a graduate degree. One thing graduate school provides: We can help students improve their livelihoods. To whatever degree the grad school can continue to work on that ideal of the land-grant mission, if we do that and we do it well, there will be less of an issue of seeing the grad school as a separate entity, because we are part and parcel of the bigger mission of what a land-grant institution should be.
One thing I’ve learned in my career is that I really have a deep love and appreciation for public education. My K-through-eight school was public, my high school was public, I went to FAMU, A&T, and Penn State, I worked at Iowa State and Purdue, and now back to Penn State. I know the value of these institutions, and that’s something that I’ll be an advocate for.
The Graduate School wasn’t formally established until 1922, but the roots of graduate education at Penn State go back to the university’s first decade: In 1863, what was then the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania awarded its first two master’s degrees in “scientific agriculture” under the direction of President Evan Pugh. Here, some more of the numbers that tell the story.
205: Graduate fields of study
9: Professional doctoral programs
100: Professional master’s degree programs
109: Research master’s degree programs
59: Degrees offered through World Campus (56 master’s, three doctoral)
95: Research doctoral programs
4: Students enrolled in the master’s in laboratory animal medicine program in the College of Medicine, the smallest program by enrollment
1,057: Students enrolled in the Penn State Online MBA program, the largest program by enrollment
14,000: Graduate students enrolled across University Park, Behrend, Great Valley, Harrisburg, Hershey, and World Campus
147,000: Alumni who have earned a graduate degree from Penn State