Fall 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 3 // To The Point // 3TP1

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Futures Task Force Recommendations TODAY


Mitchell R. Geasler
Chair, ECOP Futures Task Force and Extension Division
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University-Blacksburg

As we approach the year 2000, Extension is caught in the rapids of change. The rapids are turbulent and can be frightening. But there is no return to the calm of a slow-running river. The metaphor of being swept downstream by a torrent of change describes Extension's future as well as any image I can think of. Constant change is here and we must respond effectively or be swamped in the rapids.

If the Futures Task Force was reassembled at this time, I'm confident the content of the report would be considerably different. This reflects the magnitude of change and progress related to that change that has taken place in just the last two years. Response to this changed reality, as a system, is the order of the day.

Many in the system have responded positively, proactively, and with courage. ECOP and ES-USDA, in particular, have shown vision and determination. I know they've assessed the situation much as those on the Futures Task Force did and have concluded that time is critical.

However, as we move to the year 1990, I'm concerned about those in the system who haven't responded to the challenge of the future. The perceived value of the total system is based on the weakest, not strongest, subunit. Each state and local office must move proactively forward to the future.

I'm not implying that the content of the Futures Report is complete and accurate. However, as the Futures Task Force concluded, maintaining the status quo isn't acceptable.

The Futures Report has been widely reviewed and discussed. Most of these interactions have been positive and productive. As one reviews the sections of the report, significant progress can be cited about each. ECOP has adopted a new mission statement and statement of "new direction" - an important step recommended by the report. I'm excited by the number of states that have reviewed the ECOP statement and adopted it as is or slightly revised. It would be ideal if the mission statement could be used systemwide. The statement of New Direction reflects a vision for the future of the system, which needs broad review and understanding. Without an accepted vision, the future is uncharted at best.

The system has moved toward issues programming quite effectively. The National Initiatives were an early stimulus in this effort. The transition to issues programming is one that takes time and courage and, I feel, is progressing nicely.

ECOP and ES-USDA have taken aggressive steps in establishing the Strategic Planning Council for the system. As structured, I'm confident this body can give the needed recognition to anticipatory planning that the task force envisioned. Each state and local office must examine how anticipatory or strategic planning can be incorporated in their planning process.

Progress in flexibility of staffing and funding is more difficult. The traditions in staffing and fund sources cause much concern in this area. I've seen some initiatives begin, especially associated with the concept of contract (short-term) staffing. If issues truly drive the system, then staffing flexibility is a must.

Another concern about staffing is the availability of the resources of the total university to address the issues identified by Extension programming. The recommendation associated with this concept wasn't intended to imply or lobby for a certain university structure. The concern about the availability of a broad spectrum of resources from throughout the university overrides structure. Regardless of structure, the Extension System must develop a strategic plan to access the university-wide knowledge base.

Extension has traditionally experimented with alternative program delivery. Experimentation continues. We haven't yet reached the point where the question of "what method of program delivery would achieve greatest adoption of information related to an issue" is the first asked by local staff when planning a program. More information and training about learning effectiveness of alternatives and staff's familiarity with these alternatives is needed.

The recommendation that met with most resistance is Recommendation 23. The task force is the first to admit that the proposed creation of Research/Extension Agricultural Centers of High Technology (REACHT) to serve high technology agriculture was only one alternative. Serving high technology remains an issue. Sweeping it under the rug by rejecting this recommendation doesn't solve the problem. The concern behind this recommendation must be addressed and some resolution adopted.

One concern that the Futures Task Force didn't address is the concept of "family" in Extension. I've been hearing from some that Extension is losing the sense of family the organization once had. I'm concerned that the "sense of family" is one of the problems the organization must address. The "traditional" definition of family that I assume is the definition held by the organization is a family headed by a father image (not necessarily a male) who heads the organization and makes most major and even minor decisions. Most traditional definitions of family have a mother image (not necessarily a female) who manages, cares for, and protects family members. In addition, any number of children (employees) and close family friends (supporters) are included. The total network of family and friends stands together and defends each other regardless of circumstances. Doesn't that characterize many Extension systems? While this may not fit our definition of a modern family, it's characteristic of a traditional family.

I'm also concerned that some problems of the traditional family are plaguing the Extension System. For example, a family often has difficulty disciplining and certainly never gets rid of a "bad apple." Extension reluctantly evaluates employees and seldom fires one. A family has traditions that are held close and not evaluated. Extension has traditions approaching 75 years.

Another concern that the system must address as the transition in Extension continues is that of the understanding and support of the university presidents, provosts, and deans. Regardless of structure, the university leadership must understand and support the Extension transition. I'm concerned that the system has worked hard over the past few years to begin the transition, but hasn't brought the university administration along. The Extension System needs that support and understanding.

At the land-grant meeting in the fall of 1988, the development of a leadership plan in each university was proposed. I'm still committed to the concept of a leadership plan. The concepts of program planning related to issues and the necessary transition from traditional programming need to be applied to organizational transition. A leadership plan developed by Extension leadership in each state should set the framework for the necessary transition, including a plan for university leadership support.

As you might expect, I'm not a history buff. I respect history and our heritage, but don't subscribe to living by it. If we had, nationwide, spent equal time during this past year adjusting to the future as we did celebrating the 75th anniversary of the organization, I'm convinced the system would be stronger.

The title of the futures report is Extension in Transition: Bridging the Gap Between Vision and Reality. The title may, most clearly, reflect the greatest challenge Extension faces in the future. The national Extension System has a new mission and vision. Reality in most states is quite different than what's reflected by the mission and vision. The challenge in the near future is to plan and implement the transition.

The Futures Task Force felt the statement made at the Boston hearing by Dale Lick, president, University of Maine, captured the essence of the overall concern and need for change in the Extension System. I think his words still reflect the challenge facing the system. Therefore, I close with that quote.

Extension currently is failing to keep up with societal changes. The primary problem of Extension appears to be, in my opinion, its present, functioning mindset, a mindset that seems to be one of survival rather than one of potential. We could say that the mindset of Extension appears to be more concerned with management than leadership; that is, more concerned with doing things right, rather than doing the right things. As a result, Extension seems to be missing much of the big picture and is beginning to slip in its role as a societal leader. To be successful in the future, Extension must decide to lead and then to do so with a vision and boldness.