Robert Thompson holds the Gardner Endowed Chair in Agricultural policy at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A native of New York, he graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. in Agricultural Economics in 1967. He continued his studies at Purdue University, earning both his M.S. and Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics in 1969 and 1974, respectively.
From his roots on a New York dairy farm, Thompson launched a career in agricultural development and public policy that has literally reached all the corners of the world. Following graduation from Cornell, he was a volunteer agriculturalist with the International Voluntary Services, Inc. in Laos, working primarily with Lao extension programs for rice farmers. His master’s and doctoral research were on Brazilian exchange rate policy and agricultural development, respectively. After earning his graduate degrees, he joined the Purdue agricultural economics faculty where he spent 19 years, culminating in six years as Purdue’s Dean of Agriculture (1987-1993). He took leave from Purdue from 1983 to 1987 to serve first as the senior staff economist for the President’s Council of Economic Advisors (1983-85) and as the USDA Assistant Secretary for Economics (1985-87). In these capacities, he played an instrumental role in writing the 1985 Farm Bill and preparing for the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations. He left Purdue to become president and chief executive officer of Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development, serving there from 1993-1998, when he left to join the staff of the World Bank. At Winrock he led efforts to refocus the mission on increasing agricultural productivity and rural employment, while protecting the environment. Through speeches in more than 40 countries, he heightened awareness of Winrock’s work, and increased grants and contract support from $24 million to $32 million in three years. At the World Bank he served as Senior Advisor, Sector Strategy and Policy (1998-1999); Director of Rural Development (2000-02) with responsibility for the Bank’s worldwide programs in agriculture, forestry and rural development; and as Senior Advisor, Agricultural Trade Policy (2002). For two years, he consulted with government agencies and agribusiness on strategic vision for world agriculture, and served as Chairman of the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council and as a Senior Fellow, National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy. He was named to his current position as the Gardner Chair at the University of Illinois in 2004. He carries on an active program of classroom and extension education in public policy, and he serves on the USDA-USTR Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee for Trade and on the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council.
Thompson left his mark on Purdue Agriculture, where as dean he led the grassroots campaign to secure an additional $4 million in recurring state appropriations for agricultural research and extension. Student enrollment grew almost 40 percent, to over 2300 in 1992-93. He had the unenviable task of leading the College through an era of shrinking budgets, and he strategically repositioned the College’s programs, downsizing 20% of campus faculty and 15% of field extension staff. He led an expanded media relations and public affairs program to heighten the profile of Purdue Agriculture, which enhanced student placement and private fund raising. Annual giving to the College grew from $600,000 per year to over $7 million per year during his tenure. He also organized the successful internationalization of the College’s programs curriculum, significantly increasing study abroad and international internships for students, overseas sabbaticals by faculty, and research linkages with laboratories all over the world. When he began this effort, only a handful of Purdue Agriculture students were studying abroad. Because of his efforts, Purdue’s College of Agriculture remains a leader on the Purdue campus in providing significant international experiences, and Thompson’s original goal of having 25% of the College’s graduates study abroad before graduation has been realized.
Thompson has served on a number of corporate boards, including: Kincannon and Reed agribusiness search firm (1997-98); Terra Industries, Inc. (1997-98; Audit Committee); Vigoro Corporation (1993-96; co-chair, Public Policy Committee); PSI Resources/PSI Energy (1988-94; Audit Committee); National Cooperative Bank (1985-97; chair, Finance Committee 1995-97); Rabobank North American Agribusiness Advisory Committee (1998-2003); and Land O’Lakes (Advisory Director, 2006-present).
Thompson has received a number of academic honors, most notably: first recipient of Purdue University’s Agricultural Research Award for cumulative contributions in previous ten years (1982); Honorary Doctor of Science, Pennsylvania State University (1999); and Honorary Doctor of Laws, Dalhousie University (1999). Other leadership and service awards include: Honorary Empire Farmer Degree, New York FFA (1986); Outstanding Alumni Award, Cornell University College of Ag and Life Sciences (1988); USDA Superior Service Award (1989); Chicago Farmers’ Agriculturalist of the Year (1992); National 4-H Alumni Award (1992); Indiana Wildlife Federation’s Agriculture Conservation Awards (1993); USDA Justin Smith Morrill Memorial Award (1995); Centennial Honor Roll, national Alpha Zeta (1997); Agricultural Vision Award, National Forum for Agriculture (1997); Humanitarian Award, American College of Nutrition (1999). In 1993, Indiana Governor Evan Bayh named him a Sagamore of the Wabash for his service as Dean of Agriculture.