Summer 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 2 // To The Point // 2TP1

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The Winds of Change: Setting the Direction for Extension


Patrick J. Borich
Dean and Director
Minnesota Extension Service
University of Minnesota
Chair, Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP)

The United States spends over $1 billion on Cooperative Extension annually. As a total system, we must make a difference, we must show results.

It's the responsibility of the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) in cooperation with Extension Service-USDA to set a course for the Cooperative Extension System. Let me use a sailing metaphor to describe what it means to set a course for the total Extension System.

The Cooperative Extension System (CES) is a fleet of individual sailboats on one side of a large lake. We want to get across the lake to bring desperately needed supplies to people on the other side. We know the basic direction we need to sail, but we can't set a straight course because weather conditions can change dramatically on a big lake. We may encounter storms, fog, other sailing vessels, or areas of windless calm, so we'll have to adjust our sails, our speed, and our direction accordingly. We won't sail in a straight line, but we'll maintain a basic direction. We won't all go at the same speed, and we may even sometimes lose sight of each other, but we're in radio communications, still moving together toward the other side of the lake.

We don't have a precise landing point in mind when we reach the other side. We'll have to survey and inspect the shoreline as we get closer. Some will get there before others, doing the early exploratory work for those still out on the lake.

And what do they seek, those early arrivals? Not a landing point to disembark and set up a campsite that becomes a permanent new location for the whole system. No, the early arrivals drop their critical supplies to those in need, go to the nearest point of resupply, and then immediately set off in search of a new channel that cuts through the land and opens up on a whole new lake where, once again, we will set direction for still more distant and unknown shores, carrying more supplies to people in great need.

We dare not search for an illusory new permanent landing site. Our challenge is to serve ever-emerging needs and take on new issues by exploring, traversing, mapping, and conquering yet undiscovered great lakes.

As a system, we call those new great lakes-National Initiatives.

New Directions for a New Decade

In November 1989, ES-USDA and ECOP-NASULGC issued the first ever joint annual report to the entire Cooperative Extension System. That report, "New Directions for a New Decade," is available from your state director's office. I urge you to get a copy and read it so that you know firsthand the direction of the entire Cooperative Extension System.

The actions reported reduced the number of National Initiatives from nine to five "toward a more realistic number [and] sharpening their focus." The report also introduces officially the concept of core programs. By separating the concepts of initiatives and core programs, we're now better able to give significantly added attention to a few high-priority nationwide issues through initiatives and to convey our major program thrusts through six to 12 core programs that are common to most Extension units and also constitute a large majority of our program efforts. In February 1990, a sixth National Initiative was added to the five identified in the November 1989 report.

The six National Initiatives identified for continuation or refocus are:

  • Water Quality
  • Revitalizing Rural America
  • Youth at Risk
  • Improving Nutrition, Diet and Health, focused primarily on two issues:
    • Food Quality
    • Safety
  • Competitiveness of American Agriculture, refocused around two issues:
    • Sustainable Agriculture
    • International Marketing
  • Waste Management

Four National Initiatives have been identified for transition to core programs: alternative agricultural opportunities, building human capital, conservation and management of natural resources, and family and economic well-being.

Finally, one issue of wide public concern has been identified as a candidate for National Initiative development: global climate change.

Changes and Transitions

Some will look at these National Initiative transitions and say, "See, they still don't know what they're doing. We started out with eight, then added one. We were just figuring out what the nine National Initiatives were when they reduced them to five. Then three months later, they added another one to bring the number back up to six and are talking about adding yet another one. Why can't they figure out what the National Initiatives are and leave them alone?"

That's a fair question. The answer is that Extension can't stop changing as long as the world keeps changing. A National Initiative is "the Cooperative Extension System's commitment to respond with significantly increased effort to an important societal problem." At least that's how the Cooperative Extension System defines a National Initiative. Responding with "significantly increased effort" means reallocating people and resources within the system as well as attracting new resources. A serious commitment to reallocate people and resources means we must stop doing some things to make new commitments to higher priorities. Such reallocations in the face of changing issues will mean ongoing transitions as new National Initiatives enter into the national spotlight and others leave the National Initiative spotlight to become part of core programs.

Such transitions don't represent confusion. Such transitions represent a commitment to stay on the cutting edge of significant national problems and to seriously address those problems with reallocated and new resources.

Dynamic Interplay

A dynamic interplay must exist among National Initiatives, core programs, and disciplines in future Extension programming. Core programs are major thrust areas that are fairly broad and may address several related issues. In contrast, National Initiatives usually are sharply focused on one or a very few issues within a core program(s), and will likely continue to receive considerable attention until the issue is resolved or higher priorities draw resources from the issue. A wide array of disciplines often operating as an interdisciplinary system is essential for generating and delivering the research-based knowledge required for both National Initiatives and core programs.

Who's Responsible

As I visit in Washington, D.C. and around the country, I find a great deal of support for the course charted for the Cooperative Extension System. I also hear about barriers. I hear from administrators that they fully support the new CES course, but they can't get specialists and county staff to break old habits and make new commitments. Then I meet with Extension faculty on campus and in counties in those same states who tell me they're fully supportive, but there's no support or vision at the state administrative level. Others point to resistance at the highest levels of the university, among traditional constituencies, from county commissioners, or from advisory committees.

I encounter Extension personnel at all levels who genuinely believe they can't engage more effectively in issues-programming and support for National Initiatives because of someone else. I suggest that each person in our Extension System has an important role to play if we're to deliver on our national commitment to make a difference on National Initiatives and issues of wide public concern.

Beyond Naysaying to Genuine Commitment

To return to the sailing metaphor I began with, some people will never be ready to tack when the wind shifts. Some will want to go faster, others slower. Some will want to wait on shore a while longer in hopes of better weather, or a bigger boat, or a new technology (a power boat instead of a sailing craft). Some will complain because we can't see the shore on the other side. And some will say it's impossible to get anywhere at all because the wind is blowing against us.

The captains of a fleet of ships, sensitive to the genuine concerns of their crews, will take time to ask for their views and discuss their concerns. But those same captains carry the ultimate responsibility for charting the course and setting sail.

The national leadership of the Cooperative Extension System has charted the course. We have set sail. We're committed to delivering what we carry to the people in need on the other side. We must deliver the supplies or be prepared for another fleet to be hired to replace us.

Ships with a committed crew, working together in common purpose, each shouldering fully their own responsibility will make the greatest progress. Those ships burdened with naysayers, apprehensive Extension staff, fearful of risk and retreating to hide in their own little corner of the ship, won't make much progress.

I challenge each of you to examine whether you're one of those contributing to effectiveness and progress, or whether you're one of the anchors impeding the progress of your fellow travelers. There are many different kinds of contributions to make. We welcome, need, and encourage all those who would join us in the course we have charted.

Bon voyage to us all. It is and will be a marvelous, exciting journey.