College of Ag Sciences college relations director lauded by peers

Amy Duke
July 15, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mary Wirth, director of college relations and communications in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, received the 2019 Professional Award from the Association for Communication Excellence during the organization’s annual conference in San Antonio, Texas, June 22-27.

The award is the highest honor given by the organization to one of its members to recognize excellence and professionalism. The Association for Communication Excellence, or ACE, is an international association of communicators, educators and information technologists who focus on communicating research-based information, especially in the areas of agriculture, natural resources, and life and human sciences.

Mary Wirth College of Ag

Mary Wirth, director of college relations and communications in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, received the 2019 Professional Award from the Association for Communication Excellence.

IMAGE: Michael Houtz

"With respect to long-term excellence, Mary is the most professional and strategic communicator with whom I have ever worked in my senior management roles over 20 years," said Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences.

“Under her leadership, the college’s communications unit developed a strategic vision and retooled its talent pool to capitalize on new technologies and opportunities, as well as best business practices, resulting in the ability to contribute in exciting ways within our college. Mary is a worthy and outstanding recipient of this award.”

Wirth, a Penn State alumna, has served as director of college relations since 2001; college communications was added to the office in 2007. As part of the dean’s office, the unit she oversees is responsible for managing the college’s relationships and strategic communications with external audiences, with an emphasis on alumni, industry, legislators and prospective students, and encompasses the three mission areas of the college — education, research and Penn State Extension.

The communications team — made up of designers, writers, editors, instructional designers, photographers, web specialists, and business and marketing experts — is responsible for myriad duties, including the extension and college websites, social media, e-commerce and customer relations management, extension and research publications, the publication distribution center, the college magazine, news and media relations, and student recruitment publications. The unit also oversees college branding efforts and crisis communications.

Wirth also is responsible for governmental relations for the college, with a focus on appropriations, as well as industry relations. She serves as the executive director of the Penn State Ag Council, an agricultural industry advisory/advocacy group that works to develop mutually beneficial relationships with college stakeholders. She directs the college’s Office of Conferences and Short Courses, a continuing-education support unit.

One of Wirth’s and her team’s most celebrated achievements recently is a project known as Atlas, which established a historic and comprehensive new business model for Penn State Extension. Created in partnership with extension leadership and launched in 2017, the Atlas digital platform gives clientele access to education when they want it, where they want it, and how they want it — to help them address problems and take advantage of opportunities for improvement and innovation.

Atlas has received national accolades, a 2018 ACE Gold Award for websites, and recognition from Penn State President Eric Barron, who noted that the initiative aligns with the new Penn State 2025 vision, ensuring around-the-clock access to educational opportunities.

In addition, Wirth is instrumental in building support for the college and Penn State Extension with state lawmakers, an effort that has resulted in a 13% increase in state appropriations from 2014 to 2018, despite budget deficits. That includes what Dean Roush described as the “extremely tough year” of 2015-16, when the governor proposed a zero-budget as part of a broader impasse that left the college without funding from the commonwealth for nine months into the fiscal year.

Working with college stakeholders, Wirth mounted a comprehensive advocacy, communication and media strategy to successfully secure funding — with a 9% increase — within weeks before the University would have had to lay off 1,200 employees and shut down Penn State Extension and research station activities across the state.

“Mary is an innovator; she is a thought-leader, but, perhaps more importantly, a thought-partner,” said Bruce McPheron, former dean of the college, who is now executive vice president and provost at Ohio State University. “When I left Penn State in 2012, I carried the lessons I learned from Mary with me. She is a teacher, a mentor and a role model.”

Prior to joining Penn State, Wirth, who has extensive experience in natural resource issues, worked in public relations and government affairs at both the state and federal levels for the forestry industry and served on both congressional and gubernatorial advisory committees on forestry issues.

Wirth has been a member of ACE since 2007, most recently serving on the board as the learning community director. As a board member, she served in various leadership roles and identified issues the organization needed to address to be sustainable from a financial and membership standpoint. She also participated in the 2018 ACE strategic planning process.

“Mary has generously shared her experiences, her ideas and her vision for the leadership role that communicators can provide through presentations and one-on-one discussions with colleagues across the country,” wrote Suzanne Steel, assistant director of communications in Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, when nominating Wirth.

Steel, a past president of ACE, added that communicators often "bemoan" that they don't have a place at the table.

"Mary provides a striking and successful example of the strategic role a communicator and a communications unit can play," Steel wrote.

Wirth said being lauded by her peers in ACE is very meaningful, noting that they are “incredibly talented people to learn from, and they are happy to share. I thank them for mentoring, teaching and encouraging me, and for recognizing me with this award. I am truly grateful.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 16, 2019