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A New Vision for Extension and Outreach at CALS

By now, news has probably reached you that UW Cooperative Extension has undergone a major internal reorganization called the nExt Generation project. You’ve also likely heard that, as of July, Cooperative Extension will once again be housed within UW–Madison.  These changes are happening at the same time as a major redesign effort in CALS.  This is an enormous organizational transformation that has taken up a lot of our time and called on all of us to exercise our vision and creativity.

In January, I took on the role of associate dean for extension and outreach at CALS, and although this position has long existed at the college, its scope has been altered in the wake of changes at Cooperative Extension. My positon is now solely focused on extension and outreach activities at the college; duties related to the oversight of Cooperative Extension personnel on other campuses and in the counties now fall to two new Cooperative Extension associate deans.

Cooperative Extension has a proud, storied tradition of service and public engagement in Wisconsin, and its connection to CALS through shared specialist positions has long been a part of this tradition. I know this firsthand – I grew up in Sheboygan County, surrounded by farms, and I’ve been an extension specialist since 1990 when I joined the faculty in the Department of Biological Systems and Engineering. I expect this tradition to continue through the major transitions in Extension and in CALS. My main goals are to maintain the strong partnership between CALS and Extension, which has been forged through over 100 years of cooperation, and to ensure that our applied research supports the extension mission for the benefit the citizens of the state of Wisconsin.

Transitions like these bring challenges – but they also bring opportunities. For example, they give us pause to reassess and realign our Extension programs to make them more effective in responding to future needs.  The narrowed scope of the Extension responsibilities in my position will allow me to  coordinate and strengthen our college-based outreach efforts, that have a broader scope than our  traditional extension activities, and expand the vital role we play in connecting the university with the people of the state.

The road ahead is indeed challenging. We ask our specialists to be be responsive to citizens’ immediate needs; to listen and answer today’s questions. We also ask our specialists to be forward looking; to identify and start research programs to answer tomorrow’s questions. Their contributions to research can range in physical scale from microbes to ecosystems and in cultural scale from individuals to the state-wide community.  Our individual discoveries need to integrate plant, animal, machinery, environmental and social systems so that they can be applied to agriculture and natural resource management for the benefit of Wisconsin’s citizens.

To accomplish all of this, my vision for extension and outreach at CALS includes three vital components:

  • Excellent communication. This means communication between campus and county, county and client, client and specialist. I envision a future that combines educational programs delivered by county faculty and staff and some programs delivered directly by campus faculty and staff, with mutual dialog at all levels.
  • A solid core. We need a stable center of specialists to provide continuity and connection in areas that are likely to remain mainstays of the extension mission – the evolving dairy production system, natural resource management, and rural economic and community development.
  • The campus network should be elastic enough adapt to changing needs over time.

These operational principles can help us navigate a time of rapid change in our society and our institutions and fashion a CALS extension and outreach program for the 21st century.