Transdisciplinary Engagement Advances University Missions

Scott Reed and Lou Swanson

U.S. universities are becoming more invested in their engagement responsibility.  Support and recognition are provided by the new Carnegie Foundation elective Community Engagement Classification and work conducted through the Engagement Scholarship Consortium. Interviews of 27 university presidents and chancellors in 2016 and 2017 pointed to recognition of increasing community engagement needs while they struggled to afford such work in the face of declining public appropriations and other priorities (1).  Land Grant Universities (LGUs) benefit from their deep engagement legacies associated with their Agricultural Experiment Stations and Extension services.  Yet, Extension services have struggled to maintain their once unassailable status as the centerpiece for engagement on their campuses.  C. Peter Magrath, in his forward said:

Universities that are not engaged with their communities in the twenty-first century will soon find themselves disengaged from any meaningful relevance to the citizenry of the United States (1)

In this commentary, we describe exceptional opportunities for LGU Extension services (LGUEs) to provide visionary leadership for highly charged and complex issues confronting local and global societies.  The academic platform available to Extension services to provide sustainable leadership is championing transdisciplinary and engaged teaching, research and outreach.  Engagement across the missions moves the university away from the historic expert model to one of collaborative community partnerships. For more than a century, LGUEs have integrated applied research and interdisciplinary pedagogies to local and regional programs.  These legacies position LGUEs to nurture and advance transdisciplinary initiatives, building upon past grounded and pragmatic programing.  This opportunity is best realized by elevating Extension into university-wide status and fostering engagement as a critical component of teaching (learning) and research (discovery).  We recognize that there are understandable challenges in repurposing disciplinary, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary pedagogies toward transdisciplinary programs.  These are not insurmountable challenges, but they will entail serious internal analyses focused on each LGUE’s unique campus culture and organizational structure.  Resistance is likely.

LGUEs are historic foundations of LGU engagement. Extension develops its programs for communities, bringing their university’s campus talent to unique characteristics of place – rural communities and urban places.  LGUEs were both academically and community engaged long before the current era of university wide engagement was cool.  In the wake of the National Association of State and Land Grant Colleges (now the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities – APLU) 1999 publication Returning to Our Roots: The Engaged Institution (2),LGU campus-wide engagement and outreach missions have received broad infusions of attention and some additional resources.  The APLU Council on Engagement and Outreach’s 2012 white paper The Centrality of Engagement in Higher Education (3) emphasized broad categories for advancing university-wide engagement and outreach as a central institutional mission of equal status to teaching and research.  A central theme was to focus on transdisciplinary pedagogies.  These APLU reports are guideposts for public and private universities seeking to become 21st century engaged universities.  Yet, LGUE’s largely have remained out of the national mainstream discussions and repurposing of university-wide engagement, both nationally and on their campuses. 

A central conundrum for most LGUEs is how to project campus leadership. This is also a biproduct of how Extension is organized within various LGU structures: part of colleges of agriculture; part of a university outreach/ engagement unit; or a separate agency. This may be difficult if the campus faculty and staff perceive Extension as holding to narrow political and academic centers in production agriculture alone.  While mostly not deserved, perceptions by stakeholders and campus colleagues can inhibit campus-wide leadership roles.  Yet campus can greatly benefit by tapping Extension’s local offices and connections to statewide audiences.  This can be a central internal contradiction for both LGUEs as well as for their broader campus colleagues.  It need not and should not be a crippling conundrum.  Left unattended, though, the present likely will extend into the near future – a slow, methodical marginalization of Extension’s remaining campus leadership and its raison d’etre as an academic institution.  This is a critical discussion for LGUEs and for their LGUs administrators and colleagues. We believe there is an extraordinary window of opportunity for LGUEs to provide much needed campus leadership championing transdisciplinary academic education, research and engagement. 

Extension’s national leadership (Extension Committee on Operations and Policy – ECOP) continuously assesses current and future options for state and local Extension programs.  For many Land Grant Universities, university-wide Extension, often simply called university engagement, is one of those possible futures.  This is an opportunity to qualitatively shift from college centric to campus-wide leadership without harming long term college affiliations.  

Critiques of Extension and Opportunities

LGUEs, with a few exceptions, have not participated in broader APLU engagement programs and meetings.  Perhaps the most strident critique of LGUEs was delivered by the President of West Virginia University, Dr. Gordon Gee, in his keynote address at the 2019 Engagement Scholarship Consortium (4) in Denver.  Gee, a very strong advocate for LGUEs, laid down a vision and a warning for Extension.  His principal theme was that Extension needed to be a significantly broader campus contributor for engagement than exclusively in colleges of agriculture.  He was addressing an audience primarily comprised of non-LGUE public university engagement administrators, staff and faculty.  In generally agreeing with President Gee’s message, we offer several available organizational paths toward university wide Extension.  Extension is well-placed to not only collaborate with their campus’s academic and research leaders; Extension can provide frameworks for advancing discussions on integrated campus wide transdisciplinary initiatives.  Extension brings its deep local and state presence as connections for teaching and research outreach.  Extension acting alone is unlikely to capture the full benefits of transdisciplinary engagement.

Gee pressed this broad public university audience to ‘reinvent Extension.’ His pressure point was rhetorically asking: ‘why are you still running your outreach programs through colleges of agriculture?’   His was an articulate rhetorical exhortation.  But rhetoric, while captivating among the choir, doesn’t seed well among those who feel accused of inaction and implicitly indicted for myopic silliness of not seeing the obvious.  We think most Extension folks are interested in learning more, but more importantly they are in want of reasonable and rational groundings for potentially culturally and organizationally risky changes.  They prudently ask for pathways to possible bridges over their backyard variety political and organizational Rubicons.

Fitzgerald, et al. (2012) (3) identify fundamental academic functions and missions for expanding engagement at all public universities.  Their case for the centrality of engagement, and particularly for LGUEs, gives emphasis to transdisciplinary pedagogies and prioritize broad external relevance of academic enterprises.

Challenges to higher education include efforts to increase inter-, multi- or trans-disciplinary scholarship; to respect multiple approaches to knowledge; to reject disciplinary turfism; to change outdated reward systems; to refocus unit and institutional missions; and to breakdown firmly established and isolated silos.  It is essential to align engagement with key institutional priorities so that engagement projects and initiatives are seen to be mechanisms for enhancing higher education’s broadly conceived goals.  For institutions to fully incorporate engagement into the institutional mission they must fully address issues related to structure, budget and operation.  Faculty involvement and support for engagement through academic governance are essential for furthering the institutionalization of engagement (Fitzgerald, et. al. 2012: 7-8) (3)

While admittedly strident, the authors are fundamentally optimistic about possible paths for LGUEs and other campus engagement units to collaboratively advance inclusive and transdisciplinary organizational cultures and structures — enhancing the societal relevance and impact of public higher education.  This inherent optimism for public higher education to take on controversial issues of any historical moment is what LGUEs mostly have been doing for more than century. 

We argue LGUEs have been sensitive to the shifting needs and demands of their immediate stake holders.  The Western Extension Directors Association’s Timberline Manifesto pivoted their regional agendas toward embracing identified opportunities for transdisciplinary regional programs (5).  They have been ‘demand-driven’.  But the other side of this conceptual equation is for service to drive demand.  If the boundaries of service are limited to single college or disciplinary foci, then demand may be proportionally limited.  University-wide service-oriented units grounded among a university’s diverse talent pools, can create an institutional capacity for improving public legitimacy and reciprocally provide rich experiences for teaching and research missions.  Simply responding to dependable stakeholders is not enough for university-wide engagement – or for Extension.  Engagement opens new opportunities for creating ‘services’ that bring in new stakeholders and in turn create more demand for LGUEs.  We appreciate that this is tricky – seeming to put the cart before the horse.  Roger Rennekamp pithily reduced this seeming impossibility to a simple statement distinguishing outreach and engagement: ‘outreach begins with an answer, engagement ends with one’ (6).  LGUEs do both.  Outreach is most often the product of their engagement with stakeholders.

What is Transdisciplinary Engagement?

This is reasonable question.  In an important sense, it is about everything – well maybe not everything, but it is about getting one’s arms around big societal topics – embracing and flexibly taking on big picture issues.  Moving from strategic planning to strategic doing (7).  Transdisciplinary engagement is not a negation of disciplinary or interdisciplinary engagement, research or teaching.  Big pictures capitalize on the best social and natural science available and generate their own demands for disciplinary and interdisciplinary engagement, research and teaching.  Moreover, the big picture does not reduce inquiry associated with these academic categoriesbut expands into society’s many diverse cultures for creating and interpreting knowledge.  The creation of knowledge is not the exclusive domain of scientific inquiry.  For LGUEs, this is second nature.  Extension’s locally focused engagement and outreach necessitates big picture frameworks for locally specific issues.  Transdisciplinary engagement characterizes how we have approached big issues by trying to understand big pictures – locally, regionally, nationally and globally.  It is part of our engagement DNA. It is not new.

Transdisciplinary research and teaching flourishes when organically connected with transdisciplinary engagement.  For the academy, LGUEs have the institutional structure and capacity to connect teaching and research with society – with what we euphemistically call the real world. Extension has worked with farmers, ranchers, youth, rural and urban leaders and within some very twitchy wicked issues of our political landscapes.  We champion science and without maybe fully recognizing it we also listen to and seek to understand how our fellow citizens frame their understanding of the natural and social environments surrounding them.  We honor local knowledge resident in the populations we serve.  Extension works with groups that view one another suspiciously but value our Extension and university commitment to assisting them, even when what we provide as outreach does not please them. 

It is this capacity and legacy on which we are centering this commentary.  Extension has the experience from which it can be a leader with others in figuring out how to develop and reward transdisciplinary inquiry.  In colleges of agriculture, we have integrated our Extension experiences with students as a normal teaching practice.  But we need to be better campus partners as we step forward to fill leadership roles.  We need to be university wide.  Our big issues – climate change, food systems, youth development, environmental sustainability, pandemic threats and others — require big picture frames.  The great difference and societal benefit of the US Extension system is that it is university-based.  Universities are modern societies’ answer for the cultural imperative of sustainable and democratic production and dissemination of knowledge (8).

There are examples of transdisciplinary engagement initiatives.  One of these is the Sustainable Rangeland Roundtable (9).  Initiated in the late 1990s by LGUs and the federal government, it sought to bring together key agricultural and environmental stakeholders on a frequent recurring timetable to produce innovative big picture frameworks that provide paths for collaborative, pragmatic initiatives.  It has cultivated a transdisciplinary big picture by integrating disciplinary and multi-disciplinary knowledge and engagement.  Ecologists, economists and sociologists learned not only how to co-create models for sustainable rangelands, many discovered common methodological and conceptual grounds for thinking about this really big picture. Another example is Imagining America (10) which provides transdisciplinary frameworks for campus liberal arts and natural science initiatives.


Academic engagement certainly can incorporate transdisciplinary inquiry and outreach at the place and global levels.  This said, it is important to not think of transdisciplinary inquiry as a linear process.  Presently, transdisciplinary basic and applied research initiatives seem to be the first central locus for academic/university wide inquiry and innovation, the starting point.  Translating transdisciplinary research into the classroom and student training is thought of as the next step.  Applied or translational research tends to follow these linear paths, even among federal funding agencies.  Engagement and Extension are afterthoughts in response to political demands for societal relevance.  If one accepts this linear start to finish of transdisciplinary inquiry, then you buy into a common systematic academic normative position that the locus of inquiry is research and maybe the outcome is engagement.  This is a silly and wholly unnecessary linear epistemological bias.  Certainly, research to education to engagement is one transdisciplinary path.  Equally possible is simultaneously moving from engagement to learning and discovery.  Or from learning to discovery and engagement.  Even these imply linear assumptions.  LGUEs’ remarkable resilience over the past century is to embed their programs in the messy but necessary realities of human conditions.

Presently, resources seem to follow these linear epistemological and normative interpretive biases.  Collaborative interdisciplinary inquiry ideally simultaneously integrates learning, discovery and engagement, generating disciplinary and interdisciplinary inquiries.  Transdisciplinary inquiry and action are a shared enterprise.  Extension’s legacy of the ‘expert model’ is focused on engagement’s outreach programs.  Our outreach has produced outcomes valued by broad sectors of our traditional stakeholders.  The ‘expert model’ is easier to measure impact, a valuable administrative and political tool for public support of programs.  It is not our intent to say Extension’s traditional top-down and linear ‘expert model’ is an illegitimate endeavor.  Our point is that this linear thinking is one of many ways to embrace transdisciplinary inquiry and socialization, though likely the least innovative.  Where do the questions for framing transdisciplinary inquiry come from?  Ideally, they come from all points on a framing compass. Multi-stakeholder, multi-ecological contexts improve with inclusive dialogues across disciplines and publics.  Engagement is a reasonable initiator in organizing and institutionally sustaining transdisciplinary inquiry.  Extension is well placed to contribute to and benefit from transdisciplinary inquiry and outcomes.

Our proposal is for recognizing the value for disciplinary, multi-disciplinary and transdisciplinary academic endeavors.  Each provides significant benefits toward developing inquiry and knowledge.  LGUE programing certainly includes disciplinary and multidisciplinary research and outreach.  Interaction between fractured publics, complex/complicated social and economic forces colliding and morphing over time.

Dr. Gee (4) provided an optimistic summary and challenge:

We must pioneer progress. We must prevail with purpose. We must nurture hope and resiliency and prosperity.  And we must renew the covenant between “the people’s universities” and the people who need us most.

LGUEs can be leaders in the rethinking of our campus commitments to teaching and research through expanded engagement.  To do so requires working with campus-wide talent and embracing new and sometimes skeptical stakeholders.  University-wide engagement need not be a threat to colleges of agriculture or production agriculture stakeholders.  It certainly is a grand opportunity for youth development 4-H programs.  Successfully crossing these and other institutional Rubicons will entail risks and possibly intense pushback.  We propose that the risks of becoming campus academic leaders from our base in engagement are much less than the benefits for our LGUs and for ourselves.

What can be done?

Well, a lot can be done.  But it will require purposive action, a call to action, by LGUs.  In our experiences, most significant institutional changes, at least purposive changes, begin with broadly understood visions that require expanding old and the seeking for new partners toward shared futures.  Easy to write but difficult to do.  For many LGUs, moving toward university-wide Extension and comprehensive transdisciplinary teaching, research and engagement may be thought to be unnecessarily disruptive – ‘nothing is broke, why change’.  If this is the dominant viewpoint, then the future will be a projection of the past.  But we believe there are broad interests in both transdisciplinary studies and university-wide engagement.  By expanding LGU’s extraordinary Extension services campus-wide, both traditional stakeholders and new admirers can discover even broader mandates for Extension services.  Moreover, this is not untrodden territory.  There are LGU examples from which to learn.  At play, we believe, is understanding the difference between unnecessarily disruptive and disruptive innovations.  Harvard Business professor Clayton Christensen, who authored the concept of disruptive innovations (11, 12), found that for most large complex businesses, game changing disruptive innovations were not nurtured from within.  Rather businesses were eventually required to internalize these innovations to assure their success and often their survival.  The internal organizational self-interest antibodies tend to successfully limit qualitative transformations from within.

This manuscript boils down internal and external triggers for qualitative shifts toward expanded Extension programing campus-wide and coordinated transdisciplinary initiatives involving all institutional missions.   There are internal interests for exploring potentially disruptive but effective solutions.  There also are real as well as perceived political barriers to stepping outside of traditional ‘outreach’ characterized by the ‘expert model’, noted above.  Intentionally wading into the messy stresses of serving proven political constituencies while reaching inward to the whole university and outward toward unproven political constituencies will be daunting.  This may be particularly the case for internal and external production agriculture interests.  We have proposed here that there are substantial benefits for production agriculture.  Some of these benefits may well lie in collaboration with political constituencies among other colleges and engagement programs on campus.

If we are correct for public universities, that necessary but disruptive innovations are less likely to emerge from within or from existing politically sustaining stakeholders but can be influenced by external pressures and opportunities, then two simultaneous courses of action may be possible.  Externally, several national organizations have raised the importance of organizational innovations for public university engagement and outreach.  These are the Engagement Scholarship Consortium (ESC) and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU).  The US LGU system is embedded in APLU’s Commission on Food, Environment, and Renewable Resources (CFERR), and within CFERR the Board on Agriculture Assembly coordinates national policy for Cooperative Extension and the Agricultural Experiment Stations.  Both ESC and CFERR provide platforms for advancing discussions on both university-wide Extension and transdisciplinary studies and engagement.  Both can be external triggers for university-level discussions.  Transdisciplinary studies and engagement presently are valued among US government funding agencies and valued among most academic administrators.  Incorporating transdisciplinary curricula, research and engagement presently is a low hanging fruit for higher education organizational innovations.

Within LGUs, senior leadership, especially Provosts, VPs for Research, VPs for Engagement and academic Deans can provide university platforms for internal discussions.  However, the most important internal discussions must be within Colleges of Agriculture when Extension reports to the college Dean.  Many LGU colleges of agriculture may conclude that disruptive innovations described here are not worth exploring.  If so, then we do not recommend imposing top-down directives.  Where colleges of agriculture are willing to entertain sharing their Extension services with their campuses, then here are opportunities for incorporating disruptive innovations such that they become new legacies for university engagement and foundations for new resources made available by expanding demand for their student, staff and faculty – for their incredible pools of human talent.


 (1)  Gavazzi, Stephen M. and E. Gordon Gee. 2018. Land-Grant Universities for the Future: Higher Education for the Public Good. Johns Hopkins University Press. 202pp.

(2)Returning to Our Roots: The Engaged Institution. (1999) Third Report.Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land Grant Universities, Washington, DC.; National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, Washington, DC. 59pp.

(3) The Centrality of Engagement in Higher Education. Fitzgerald, Hiram E.; Bruns, Karen; Sonka, Steven T.; Furco, Andrew; Swanson, Louis Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, v16 n3 p7-27 Sep 2012

(4) E, Gordon Gee. 2019 Engagement Scholarship Consortium Keynote Address Denver, CO.

(5) Reed, A.S., L. Swanson and F. Schlutt 2015 Journal of Extension 53:4).

(6) Rennekamp, Roger. 2010. Personal communication.

(7) Fast Company: Strategic Planning is Dead; Long Live Strategic Execution.

(8) Swanson, L and K. Mao. 2019. ‘Thinking Globally About Universities and Extension: The Convergence of University-Based and Centralized Extension Systems in China.’ Journal of Extension, Journal of Extension December 2019, Volume 57, Number 6 a4.

(9) ( 


(11) Christensen, Clayton M. (1997). The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Harvard Business School Press. ISBN 978-0-87584-585-2.

(12)  Christensen, Clayton M.; Raynor, Michael E. (2003), The innovator’s solution: creating and sustaining successful growth, Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Harvard Business School Press, ISBN 978-1-57851-852-4.