Spring 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 1 // To The Point // 1TP2

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Too Little, Too Late?


Norman Brown
W. K. Kellogg Foundation
Battle Creek, Michigan

Cooperative Extension and the land-grant university system of which it's a key part are at a crossroads. Extension came into existence as a creative attempt to help people solve problems. It did this well for decades by extending the knowledge resources of the university and building the capacity of entrepreneurs, families, communities, and local organizations and institutions to use that knowledge. Recently, many formerly supportive clientele have been criticizing Extension for becoming unresponsive and even irrelevant - failing to change and adapt to a rapidly changing world. An equally serious (but seldom heard) criticism is that many potential audiences are being ignored or poorly served.

The system is to be commended for its recent efforts to become more proactive and relevant. Unfortunately, this may be too little and too late, except in a handful of states with inspired and respected leadership.

Unprecedented efforts must be made to tap the knowledge base of the entire university. For too long, we've seen administrators argue that the only way they could broaden resources beyond agriculture and home economics was to receive large infusions of new money. Extension must either reallocate its present resources or face extinction. Significant new resources will only come when Extension leadership is seen as capable of making difficult decisions and stopping (or greatly reducing) some formerly sacred programs to provide others society clearly needs more. Incidentally, the cry for Extension to serve in some new areas may be faint because many people may have given up on Extension as they've seen their needs ignored for years.

In most universities, Extension needs to be placed organizationally at the upper level of the university, certainly at a level higher than one college. Colleges of Agriculture simply aren't providing bold leadership in broad societal issues such as youth development, family strengthening, broad economic development, community revitalization, and environmental sustainability. As a result, Extension's not seen as relevant by many. It simply doesn't have the knowledge resources needed by citizens nor the administrative leverage to get them.

In many cases, Extension must broaden its staff to reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the audiences it purports to serve. Of all institutions, Extension should be a leader in building a pluralistic staff. Too often its leaders are content to meet only the minimum legal requirements, and some do that begrudgingly, if at all.

Faculty and staff are Extension's greatest resource. In many states, due to low salaries and lack of leadership, the most effective Extension workers are discouraged and some are leaving. Recruitment is difficult. A hard decision needs to be made either to get the resources to pay for quality professionals or to cut positions to adequately compensate those remaining. Extension education takes a high level of expertise and people skills and is much more demanding than many roles. Extension won't survive with mediocre staff.

Bold new efforts must be made to more effectively involve a greater number of volunteers in meaningful roles. Extension knows how to do this better than anyone else. It should lead with one of its greatest assets.

As odd as it may sound, Extension must be more effective in using citizen advisory groups. While known for its use of clientele in such roles, too many perceive Extension as needing to listen more and "sell" less when seeking advice. A new respect for the ability and knowledge of clientele must be developed.

This is a time for bold, visionary leadership. Land-grant presidents, Extension faculty and staff, and the people Extension serves, or should serve, must decide. Is Extension going to meet the needs and become more relevant or is it to be replaced by new institutions that will?