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Adding to the reins

Nancy Cox aims to help students, UK ag college to succeed

Nancy Cox, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, is an avid horse rider. Photo: David Traxler
Cox congratulates a 2019 graduate during the graduation ceremony. Photo: Matt Barton/UK Ag Communications
The best part of serving as dean is “helping faculty, students and our employees succeed,” Cox says. Photo: Matt Barton/UK Ag Communications
Cox talks with student ambassadors at UK’s Ag Roundup, an annual alumni event. Photo: Matt Barton/Ag Communications

When Nancy Cox became dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment (CAFE) in 2014, she joined a very small national group. 

Of the deans at U.S. colleges of agriculture, “only a handful” are women, Cox says. 

She became a member of another small group when UK President Dr. Eli Capilouto named her to an added role as the university’s first vice president for land-grant engagement in September 2020. 

“Of other land-grant universities there are not very many that have a vice president over agriculture, maybe 10 or 12, nationally,” Cox says. 

Early love of horses foreshadows career

An only child, Cox grew up in South Carolina. Her father owned an insurance agency and the family had a small farm where they kept horses. Cox’s lifelong love of horses started then. She soon had her own horse and was involved in riding activities. As a teenager she and her horse competed in barrel racing.

Cox earned her undergraduate degree from Furman University and master’s degree from the University of Georgia. She completed her doctorate at North Carolina State University and began her career in teaching and research.

She came to the University of Kentucky in 2001 as the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment (CAFE) associate dean for research. One of her major contributions in that position and as a renowned animal/equine physiologist was creating the Equine Initiative, now known as the Equine Programs. She led UK agriculture faculty members and staff in developing four-year equine majors that have attracted students and faculty from across the country. 

Under her leadership, UK forged new and stronger ties with Kentucky’s equine industry, which benefited the Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing and breeding, and sport horse breeding and competitions.

The college’s service to Kentuckians also has been strengthened by past joint efforts with UK faculty and staff from nursing, business and other colleges. Cox looks forward to more joint projects with them and other colleges at UK. 

Cox says the budget has always been a challenging aspect of her job as dean. But because the college is so large and diverse, she says the top challenge is making sure that its research, extension and teaching employees are the best they can be while making sure it evolves in the 21st century.

The best part of serving as the CAFE’s dean, she says, is “helping faculty, students and our employees succeed. They are full of good ideas and I try to help them succeed.” 

One way she’d like to help them is to improve their facilities. “The College (of Agriculture) has had no new buildings since 2001. I’m really working hard to secure better teaching and research facilities (for everyone in the CAFE),” she says.

Land-grant leader

Cox points to “interacting with new people who want to serve our citizenry” as the big plus in her new, added land-grant role. Her ultimate goal, she says, is “to truly make a difference in the health of the community.”

Land-grant universities such as UK and Kentucky State University were created by the Morrill Act of 1862. Each state received federal funding and land to establish a college of agriculture to serve farmers through teaching, research and Extension.

Cox says about 1,000 CAFE employees work in Extension in every Kentucky county, helping farmers, backyard gardeners, homemakers and people who want to create food businesses, among others.

She still maintains her personal equine ties, countering long hours of meetings, desk work and business travel with riding and caring for her horses. Cox also enjoys gardening and landscaping.

“I’m developing a farm, so I’m working on landscaping and adding facilities there,” she says.

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