ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Carlson — ‘What is Extension, and what is your job?’

By Brad Carlson

"What is Extension, and what is your job?"

The story begins in the early 1800s when most post-secondary education was private (think Harvard, Yale, etc.), expensive (out of reach to the average citizen), and dealt with subjects that were not of immediate importance to the populous (like philosophy, history and literature).

To make a long story short, there was a groundswell to create a public post-secondary education system that would deal with subjects of science and technology to solve the problems of the common people and to educate their sons and daughters.  The federal government lacked funds to create this system, but they were rich in land, so the US Congress passed the land-grant act which gave tracts of land to each state for the purpose of establishing a public university for this purpose.  The land was sold, and the funds were dedicated to the establishment of the state’s "Land Grant University."    In some states a new institution was created specifically for this purpose.  In other states, the land grant was given to a pre-existing institution under the condition that they would accept this mission of service to the public.  Therefore, each state has a "Land Grant University" with a three-fold mission to: 1) Conduct research to solve the problems of the people of the state, 2) Pass this information on to the people (Extension), and 3) Educate students to be able to work in these subject areas.  In addition to the University of Minnesota, some other Land Grant Institutions include:  Iowa State University, the University of Wisconsin, Cornell, Rutgers, Penn State, Texas A&M, Michigan State University, North Carolina State, Purdue University, The University of California, etc.

  It is the "3 Pronged Mission" that separates a Land Grant from any other public college or university.  The teaching aspects are not significantly different from other colleges or Universities. Specifically, it is the type of research that is conducted by the Land Grant (that which is pertinent to the lives of the citizens), and the wisdom that that research does little good unless there is a system to convey the information to the public (this was "value added" before the term existed).  Outreach took many forms early on, but eventually evolved into the Extension system under the USDA in 1914 (by act of Congress).    Because society was highly agrarian in nature when the Land Grant System was created much of the research and outreach programs centered on the matters of agriculture and the lives of farmers.  An argument can certainly be made that society is no longer agrarian, and Extension should change to address that fact.  One of the cold hard facts is that there is not enough money (nor the public will) to broaden Extension to (successfully) serve all aspects of society.  There is barely enough money to be able to continue to do what we currently do well.  Beyond that, we need to acknowledge that agriculture is still the predominant land use in much of the state.  There are over 81,000 farms in Minnesota, and agriculture accounts for over $33 billion dollars of economic activity annually.  One out of seven jobs in Minnesota depends on the Agriculture and Food industries.    Occasionally people will criticize Extension and say that it is no longer necessary because private industry can perform the same functions.  When you look at this argument from afar it reveals a circular nature, because the industry that is supposedly able to perform these services is getting its information and training from Extension, and without Extension it would not be able to perform these services.  In addition, there are many areas where there is no economic incentive (and probably never will be) to conduct private research and education.  Specifically issues related to environmental quality and public policy have little potential for a privately funded model.    A final discussion on the continued legitimacy of Extension is to go back to the "value added" aspect of Extension for the research conducted by the Land Grant Institution.  It only makes sense that if the public is going to support research that supports the economy and improves the lives of the citizens that there should be a system to disseminate the information.  This occurs in the form of meetings, seminars, workshops, printed materials, web pages, and live bodies to answer questions over the phone or in person.  In the case of youth it is in the form of 4-H clubs which turns the learning into fun.

ADVERTISEMENT

  It is the "3 Pronged Mission" that separates a Land Grant from any other public college or university.  The teaching aspects are not significantly different from other colleges or Universities. Specifically, it is the type of research that is conducted by the Land Grant (that which is pertinent to the lives of the citizens), and the wisdom that that research does little good unless there is a system to convey the information to the public (this was "value added" before the term existed).  Outreach took many forms early on, but eventually evolved into the Extension system under the USDA in 1914 (by act of Congress).    Because society was highly agrarian in nature when the Land Grant System was created much of the research and outreach programs centered on the matters of agriculture and the lives of farmers.  An argument can certainly be made that society is no longer agrarian, and Extension should change to address that fact.  One of the cold hard facts is that there is not enough money (nor the public will) to broaden Extension to (successfully) serve all aspects of society.  There is barely enough money to be able to continue to do what we currently do well.  Beyond that, we need to acknowledge that agriculture is still the predominant land use in much of the state.  There are over 81,000 farms in Minnesota, and agriculture accounts for over $33 billion dollars of economic activity annually.  One out of seven jobs in Minnesota depends on the Agriculture and Food industries.    Occasionally people will criticize Extension and say that it is no longer necessary because private industry can perform the same functions.  When you look at this argument from afar it reveals a circular nature, because the industry that is supposedly able to perform these services is getting its information and training from Extension, and without Extension it would not be able to perform these services.  In addition, there are many areas where there is no economic incentive (and probably never will be) to conduct private research and education.  Specifically issues related to environmental quality and public policy have little potential for a privately funded model.    A final discussion on the continued legitimacy of Extension is to go back to the "value added" aspect of Extension for the research conducted by the Land Grant Institution.  It only makes sense that if the public is going to support research that supports the economy and improves the lives of the citizens that there should be a system to disseminate the information.  This occurs in the form of meetings, seminars, workshops, printed materials, web pages, and live bodies to answer questions over the phone or in person.  In the case of youth it is in the form of 4-H clubs which turns the learning into fun.

  I believe that those who use Extension and those with opinions about what Extension should do or look like should all have knowledge about what Extension is and what it seeks to accomplish.  Extension has changed significantly in the past, and will continue to do so in the future.

What To Read Next
Fundraising is underway to move the giant ball of twine from the Highland, Wisconsin, home of creator James Frank Kotera, who died last month at age 75, 44 years after starting the big ball.