Summer 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 2 // To The Point // 2TP2

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Sailing the Extension Ship


David L. Holder
National Program Leader
Washington, D.C.

Where do initiatives fit into the Extension program? Borich uses a sailing metaphor to help us understand National Initiatives. Let me add my own model of a sailing ship that helps me understand the educational programming process in the Cooperative Extension System. Maybe it will help you, too.

Extension has a certain number of "high visibility" programs (sails) addressing issues that have been determined to be high on the public agenda. These high visibility programs currently are the six National Initiatives. As issues change, we expect to change these "sails" on the ship.

Beneath that layer of high visibility programs is a more basic structure, a number of "base programs" that we've determined to be important to meet the needs of our clientele. These are disciplinary and interdisciplinary programs that have helped Extension maintain its integrity, credibility, and support. These are substantial, visible planks of our program that are changed from time to time as old ones wear out and new ones replace them. But if many of them are ripped out and thrown overboard, the ship will be crippled and may even sink.

Largely below the water line is the ballast, keel, and rudder that keep the ship upright and on course. Down here we find a variety of important linkages - linkages to the disciplines, our foundation of scientific principles and knowledge, and our linkages with other government agencies and a large number of interest groups that help us focus our programs on relevant issues.

Well then, what has changed in the last couple of years with the introduction of National Initiatives? I think we have rerigged the ship with fewer, taller, and brighter sails. We've always had sails, but these are more visible and more distinct. In the rerigging process, we've had to change a few deck planks as we've become more sensitive to a broader set of issues, and recognized the need for greater teamwork and interdisciplinary approaches to solving problems. It's not that these didn't exist before, but we're now giving them greater attention. We've expanded and strengthened our linkages to other organizations, including consumer and environmental groups. Some of our colleagues have tried to cut ties with disciplines, but in reality, I think we need to strengthen them, because while taller sails enable greater visibility and greater agility, they also require greater ballast.

Federal Role

The federal partner of the Cooperative Extension System, ES-USDA, provides national leadership for the initiatives in conjunction with ECOP. Like our partners at the state and county levels, we at the federal level began by groping for ways to handle the increased emphasis on National Initiatives, issues programming, and interdisciplinary teamwork. I think we are finally beginning to feel comfortable with the process, but it has taken us time to get there, and we expect to learn more as we proceed. As a federal staff, we've developed a planning process leading to plans of action for each initiative, and we've broadened the system's linkages with a wider variety of federal government agencies and national interest groups.


The Extension System for the 1990s is a redesigned ship with taller sails and deeper draft to sail faster in more unfamiliar waters with shifting shoals (sandbars). It seems obvious to me that we're going to need experienced management at the helm and a well-trained crew if we expect to reach our desired ports.