Winter 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 4 // Forum // 4FRM1

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Institutional Conflict Between Issues-Based and Disciplinary Programming

Institutional conflict could be minimized by developing an issues-oriented programming model that's sensitive to the incentives facing CES faculty. But thorough analysis needs to be done first. The alleged breakdown in CES' social contract must be defined and validated.

Henry M. Bahn1
National Program Leader Marketing
Washington, D.C.

Acceptance of issues programming hasn't been unanimous within the Cooperative Extension System (CES). Particularly at the specialist and agent levels, confusion exists about how issues programming complements a disciplinary and departmental program structure. Reluctance to fully embrace issues programming results from a conflict of institutional incentives. The issues programming paradigm isn't consistent with norms currently embodied in CES; it's perceived as insensitive to the role that specialization has played in CES' long history. Arguments to the contrary haven't been convincingly articulated.

In reaction to debate about the declining relevance of the land-grant university system and decreased funding, the Extension Committee on Policy and Organization commissioned a paper to explore the topic relative to CES. The response, Issues Programming in Extension, suggested shifting from a departmental and disciplinary programming structure to focus on "matters of wide public concern arising out of complex human problems."2 A follow-up to this response, The Role of Disciplines in Issues Programming, noted dissimilarity between issues programming and disciplinary programming. The authors concluded that "specialists have an allegiance to both the issue and to their respective subject matter."3

Error in Introducing Issues Programming

Axiomatic allegiance first to issues, then to subject matter is tantamount to a "type-two error" (accepting what's unproven as true) regarding a paradigm shift. The error stems from a felt need to improve conditions, and the search for a model to meet that need. The aim of issues programming was perceived as valuable to society and thus beneficial to CES. Therefore, the model was expected to be valued by CES staff as desirable and the paradigm shift was expected to be accepted without reservation.

Role of Incentives

Members of complex organizations are rational. Their behavior is motivated by existing institutional incentives: supervisory pressures, professional expectations, and pressures generated by the local environment.

Supervisory pressures result from the institutional philosophy, or "party line," that members of organizations are expected to follow. These pressures are difficult to sustain when members of the organization have a high degree of competence and commitment and roughly equal professional status, especially in organizations with a high degree of individual autonomy.

Professional expectations relate to career advancement. Faculty, including those without research appointments, must demonstrate credibility and scholarly growth of sufficient quality and quantity as judged acceptable by peers. Promotion and career advancement depend on the display of personal competency to primary stakeholders-the department and the discipline. Rational faculty don't lose sight of this fundamental fact. Proponents view tenure and promotion based on individual achievement as a barrier to issues programming. It may be, but the motivation of individuals and internal rules governing organizational structure must be addressed before change can occur.

Local pressures relate to workloads, resource allocations, and stakeholder expectations. They're dynamic, political, and sometimes controversial, and may place the individual in conflict with institutional philosophy and supervisory pressures.

Incentives are manifest in different ways. When faced with multiple or conflicting incentives, however, rational faculty choose a "safety-first" strategy under conditions of uncertainty. They maintain allegiance to the institutional structure that provides tangible incentives and concrete rewards for performance.

Toward a Possible Resolution

Institutional conflict could be minimized by developing an issues-oriented programming model that's sensitive to the incentives facing CES faculty. But thorough analysis needs to be done first. The alleged breakdown in CES' social contract must be defined and validated. A conceptual base for issues programming must replace the argument that CES "is moving so rapidly that practice of issues programming is preceding theory and conceptual development."4

Institutions are dynamic, finite entities. Altering institutional structure requires reorientation of priorities and reallocation of resources. Mistakes decrease quality, reduce effectiveness, and lower the institution's value to society. Expediency is dangerous, especially if responses are subjective. CES' social contract must be verified and explained before the merits of alternative models can be objectively explored.


1. This article doesn't necessarily represent the views of the Extension Service or USDA. Janet Poley and Bill Rivera provided helpful comments and direction in the preparation of this article.

2. Kathleen Albrecht Dalgaard and others, Issues Programing in Extension (St. Paul: University of Minnesota, CES, 1988), p. 5.

3. Ellen Taylor-Powell and Lawrence A. Lippke, The Role of Disciplines in Issues Programming (College Station: Texas A&M University System, Agricultural Extension Service, 1989), p. 34.

4. Dalgaard, Issues Programming in Extension, p. 4.