It’s time for Extension Services to go BIG
Scott Reed, Vice Provost Emeritus, Outreach and Engagement, Oregon State University
Lou Swanson, Emeritus Vice President of Engagement, Colorado State University
After more than 100 years of ably serving America’s agriculture and natural resource issues, it is past time for Cooperative Extension to step into university-wide leadership roles. With an established presence in more than three thousand county offices, Extension can directly link human and community issues to the intellectual capital of our Land-grant university faculties. Too often, Extension is limited by historic administrative ties to single colleges and captive relationships to traditional clientele who argue for continued specialized service at the expense of emerging critical opportunities to address contemporary issues.
The last 20 years have seen an increasing call for university relevance, beginning with a pivotal publication, Returning to our Roots: The Engaged Institution, produced in 1999 by the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities. 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.
More recently, the 2018 book, Land-Grant Universities for the Future: Higher Education for the Public Good interviewed 27 university presidents and chancellors. It called for more vigorously upholding community-focused missions while struggling to afford such work in the face of declining public appropriations and other priorities. In his forward, C. Peter Magrath declared,
“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.“
Engagement across the missions moves the university away from the historic expert model to one of collaborative community partnerships. 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). After all, LGU Extension Services have been academically and community-engaged long before the current de rigueur call for engagement. Imagine the benefits to university students of directly connecting to local Extension offices in their experiential and service learning.
We side with President Gordon Gee of West Virginia University, who, in his keynote address at the 2019 Engagement Scholarship Consortium in Denver, said Extension needs to be a significantly broader campus contributor for engagement than exclusively in colleges of agriculture. Extension brings its deep local and state presence as connections for teaching and research outreach across the campus.
How to initiate such changes? We recognize that the diversity of institutional personas and political realities call for multiple approaches. Importantly, university senior leadership including Presidents, Provosts, VPs of Research and academic leaders must inspire conversations involving faculties and stakeholders. Building upon Cooperative Extension’s legacy can launch our LGUs towards a level of true engagement and increased relevance.