Summer 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 2 // To The Point // 2TP3
Forward with the Original Land-Grant Concept
We've heard and read a great deal lately about change in the Cooperative Extension System (CES), as if the notion of change was new to it. Boyle doubted that CES is capable of making the changes needed to be consequential to American society as we move into the 21st century. He notes correctly that CES won't change unless individuals in the system are willing to change. Fortunately, most of these individuals share at least some elements of a basic philosophy about the role of research and education in helping society overcome current problems and avoid problems in the future. Nevertheless, Boyle's article, essentially an admonition to CES that we must change to remain relevant, raises several important points. We will try to address a few of them briefly.
It's important to do a careful analysis of what exactly needs to be changed. Some aspects of CES aren't broken, so they don't need fixing. This point seldom gets mentioned. Furthermore, most of the change needed isn't in the philosophical underpinnings of CES, but in how these have been operationalized, or in some cases not operationalized. For example, the involvement of local people in identifying Extension and research program priorities is an old way of doing business, but still sound.
Another fundamental precept of CES that needn't change is that educational programming should be based on research of the land-grant universities and USDA. The degree to which the translation of research results to educational programming can occur is determined largely by the nature of the research, which in turn is determined by the priorities given to research topics. A change that's needed is to do a better job of integrating research and Extension, including the identification of research priorities. Assurance of this begins with faculty at land-grant universities who are committed to solving real-world problems and are recognized and rewarded for doing so. This doesn't mean employing only people with what has been called "applied" research interests.
Given that we have faculty in the land-grant university who are predisposed to relevance in their research, CES needs a stronger role in identifying current and emerging research topics and in refining the research questions to be addressed. This is really a change back to the original concept of Extension, indeed that of the land-grant system as it evolved through the first 50 years of its existence, not a radical departure from that concept. Although we developed a system of integrated research and education functions envied and copied around the world, in the last two decades we have allowed those functions to drift apart into competitive sectors.
Could it be that much of the current expressed desire for change in CES is a reflection of the fact that we've moved away from the historical conceptual roots of the system and we want to get back on track? Although we certainly have changed and will continue to change subject matter and program delivery methods, our conceptual traditions have the potential to be much more enduring (that is, have continuing relevance). This is reason to take heart about our ability to change. It's vastly more reasonable to expect that CES can continue to make needed changes in delivery methods and subject matter if the conceptual underpinnings of the entire system remain sound.
We also need to be better evaluators of our programs' impacts on people. Through careful, comprehensive evaluation of programs - starting with critical analysis of theoretical frameworks, including assessments of implementation appropriateness, and then ultimately measuring impact-we can learn much about what should be changed and how to change.
Is the CES ready for change? Fundamentally, yes. As we noted earlier, the system has the right philosophical foundation to allow change to occur. We need to address the following:
- Overcoming vagueness in the definition of the "changes" that
are needed, through clear articulation by CES leadership and
critics, and development of internal education strategies that
will accelerate adoption of needed changes among members of CES.
- Integrating research and Extension through planning and
funding decisions to achieve greater involvement of Extension
professionals in identifying research priorities.
- Engaging in effective, comprehensive evaluation of programs.
- Training Extension professionals in new program delivery
- Improving the ability of Extension professionals to build local people's capacity to think about future needs.
These will take commitments of time and other resources, but are entirely achievable.
Possibly the most important prerequisite of change for our organization is one element that itself has remained unchanged - the philosophy and commitment of CES professionals to helping people through education. That commitment has perhaps been the most stable characteristic of our organization, and it's this devotion to helping people that has and will continue to provide impetus for us to change what we do and how we do it. If change is needed to continue to help people or to improve our ability to help them, we're confident change will occur. As you reflect on the many changes that have occurred in CES over the past 75 years, haven't they been largely at the level of subject matter, audience, focus, delivery method, etc., not at the level of fundamental purpose? We doubt that will change in the 1990s or the 21st century, so we answer Boyle's question about whether the CES is serious about change with a resounding "yes, as always."
Today, more than ever before, faculty and Extension staff need to become better "futurists." We need to do a better job of educating local people about trends and forecasts relevant to social, economic, and environmental issues so they can anticipate potential future problems that programs and actions today could be designed to avoid or mitigate. This would reduce the amount of reactive programming in CES and help us avoid Boyle's concern of becoming "inconsequential."