The Land Grant University and Extension's Third Wave

Posted May 28th, 2007 · Tags: ,

Originally published in John’s Journal: Research and Development by the University of Missouri. Copyright 2007, Curators of the University of Missouri.

(a summary of comments given last week at the University of Missouri Extension Conference)

Having returned to the state of my birth nearly eight years ago to work for the University of Missouri, I am honored to be asked to say a few words about my perceptions of the University of Missouri Extension, where we’ve been; where we are; and where we are going.

I even went back and dusted off my message to the agriculture/natural resource faculty after completing my six month review as the new Associate Dean and ANR Program Leader for Extension – dated July of 2000.

Then, as now, we are concerned with bold leadership for our Extension mission. Today we welcome Michael Ouart as our new Director. Positions such as his seem to have so many degrees of freedom, and have such diverse expectations. Taking on an academic curriculum or building a truly strategic research effort – these are challenging, but have benchmarks and metrics that are well understood. Crafting a vision and measuring progress with Extension has been an allusive task.

Extension came after the land grant’s founding purpose of education, and the later development of a research arm in the public interest. While all three land grant missions relate to the times, the Extension mission must constantly reshape itself to fill the gap, and form the bridge, between what we discover and what we practice. Now nearly 100 years old, my look back at Extension’s history suggests we’ve been through at least two eras, and today face the third wave of major change.

Begun in the heart of the industrial era, Extension was first put in place as we applied industrial thought to everyday life. Just as in the factories, we also put machines to work on the American farm. Easing the burden of manual labor and animal power with industrial ingenuity changed the face of America. These formative years of Extension created many of the organizational structures and programs that still exist today.

It is harder to peg an exact date of when Extension’s second wave began, but WWII was certainly a tipping point. Not only did technology help end the war, technology was now free to find the farm. We had created, and were receptive to, the benefit of big, publicly-sponsored science. Acronym agencies became a part of our everyday life. Formerly small institutes like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began to grow, and many other new ones were created, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF)and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Even the Department of Agriculture developed its own internal research agency, the Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS).

The impact of our belief in public science changed the scene for those involved in creation, invention, and development. In 1950, more than two-thirds of the nation’s basic research occurred within the confines of the industrial giants, with less than one-third on the nation’s university campuses. Within fifty years, the ratio was reversed, with the modern American research university firmly at the front end of a supply chain of ideas and basic research that has become what we today call the “new economy”.

Through this period, what some call the golden years of Extension, we successfully bridged the gap, and played a role in the public adoption of an incredible array of technologies from coast to coast. But, as our new economy grew in sophistication, the gap has grown ever wider. For the first time, signs began to appear that Extension was not (perhaps could not) cover all the bases. Here and there, our credibility came into question. This new economy public-private pipeline also brought with it private sector consultants who knew as much – or more – than our Extension faculty. While the need for the Extension mission seemed as real as ever across our society, we re-examined our role and our relevancy.

If you accept the notion that it was WWII that marked the end of Extension’s formative years, then I would submit Sept 11, 2001 accelerated the end of Extension’s golden years. Though new third-wave Extension programs were already evident across the country, the dramatic economic upheaval of 2001 now forced many states to speed the transition along. With public higher education one of the few areas of discretionary spending in many state legislatures, the burden of funding many of our land grant institutions suddenly shifted from that of the public to that of the student. Tuition rose rapidly, leading many to ask what ‘public good’ was left in ‘public higher education’.

The result? We are undergoing a new awakening of the American research university’s role in our economy. From science to the arts and humanities – our universities not only represent an ever important gateway for our youth, they represent what could be our only edge in a future American economy pegged on innovation.

Our nation, and most of our states, are now focused on filling the gap between discovery and practice. It is now a key strategy for many Governors, and certainly many university Presidents. Let’s look at three of this nation’s leading examples:

The Wisconsin “Growth Agenda” is the plan cited by Kevin Reilly, now President, former Chancellor for UW Extension. It is his modern manifestation of Extension that serves the state, keeps the Wisconsin ‘Covenant’ as a public good, and gives Wisconsin the ‘brain gain’ they desire to stay competitive in the future.

Purdue’s “Office of Engagement” quickly formed after Martin Jischke took over as President coming from Iowa State. It is a broad agenda linking Indiana’s land grant university missions to that of local communities and their economic development. (Prior to Iowa State, Martin was Chancellor at University of Missouri – Rolla).

Arizona State University is not a land grant, but a self-proclaimed “New American University”. Its notoriety comes from not being bound by the history, or expectations, of the land grant university. Instead, they created their third wave principles around eight ‘design imperatives’ such as ‘leveraging place’, ‘societal transformation’, and ‘knowledge entrepreneurs’. Sound familiar? Their President, Michael Crow, a product of Iowa State, is a widely sought-after speaker and writer among university Presidents for what we might call Arizona State’s ability to close the gap between their research and the marketplace.

These are marks of a new brand of Extension, what I’ve called today the third era or wave. It is one that finds Extension challenged to be both broad, but also specific. And certainly one that closely links the Extension mission to that of fostering the contemporary public research university to be an engine of economic development.

For Missouri to adopt such a new brand of Extension, it will take leadership. And we all welcome and look forward to Michael Ouart’s contributions in the days ahead.

It will also force us to take a closer look at Missouri, and our own way of dealing with change and …“risk”.

And lastly, it will take us all, the faculty and staff of the University of Missouri, to help lead this effort. We have the legacy of a frontier spirit – let’s rediscover this trait which has served us well before, and put it to good use for the future of Missouri.



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