Ecosystem science head retires after 30-plus years with land-grant universities

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — If Mike Messina has learned one thing from working for land-grant universities in three states for more than three decades, it's something he heard often during his stint with Texas A&M University: "Remember who you came to the dance with."

Mike Messina, professor and head of the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management — shown here with a cub during a recent Pennsylvania Game Commission bear study — is retiring.   Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

In the case of the professor and head of Penn State's Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, who retires at the end of this month, he came to the dance with the land-grant university mission. He has never forgotten that.

"As I go out the door here, we remain the center of excellence for natural resources education, research and extension — I like the fact that the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State epitomizes the land-grant mission," he said. "It is fun working at a university that stays true to its land-grant mission, which I did all my life, at North Carolina State, Texas A&M and at Penn State."

Messina said that during 10-plus years — briefly as director of the former School of Forest Resources and then as head of the spinoff Department of Ecosystem Science and Management — he has enjoyed Penn State's commitment to keeping in touch with the citizenry of Pennsylvania.

"I served on so many task forces, committees and councils since I have been here, and I was proud to represent Penn State because I felt that the people look at us as an unbiased source of information," he said. "And we can tell them the truth without being self-serving. I tried never to lose sight of that fact. We are a land-grant school and people depend on us for research, education and extension."

Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, pointed out that Messina ably led the School of Forest Resources through tough times dictated by a 20% Commonwealth budget cut to the college in 2011 and the subsequent creation of the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management.

"Mike is well connected to the forestry industry and the public sector in forestry and wildlife management, with a focus on Pennsylvania," Roush said. "I am grateful that Mike has educated me about both, which has helped me to serve both the department and the college more effectively. He also will be missed for his wry and quick sense of humor."

Originally from Pottsville, in Schuylkill County — just a couple hours' drive from University Park — Messina plans to stay in the State College area. He has developed a fondness for the small town of Bellefonte, outside of which he owns a house with his wife, Suzy. He hopes retirement offers him a chance to spend more time in his beloved woodshop there (he has made most of the furniture in his house).

The State College area is a nice place to retire, one of the best places in the country, he noted, and he plans to take advantage of that. But, perhaps as you would expect from the head of an academic department focused on forestry, ecology, wildlife and fisheries, and soil science, he intends to spend a lot more time in the outdoors.

"Pennsylvania has well over 3 million acres of state and federal land that will never be sold or developed," he said. "The Messinas have a travel trailer and kayaks, so I think we'll be 'out there' a lot. I may even take up fly-fishing again."

Roush named David Eissenstat, professor of woody plant physiology, as interim head of the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management. June 28 will be Messina's last day in the office. His departure may seem sudden to some, but he told colleagues recently that he made the decision to retire this year way back in September 2008. He kept the date under wraps until last month, he said, because he didn't want to be a lame-duck leader.

How does he want to be remembered? Maybe for guiding the difficult transition from the School of Forest Resources to the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management. But more so as being a pretty decent guy to work with.

"After being a professor teaching courses like silviculture, forest ecology and wood science for more than 22 years and being a department head for more than 10 years, I know it's important to just be nice," he said. "I'm sad to leave all the friends I've made but excited about the next chapter of my life."

Last Updated October 17, 2019