The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.
By Robert Kent, retired Interim Associate Director, New York Sea Grant, Cornell Cooperative Extension
I retired from Cornell Cooperative Extension in 2011 after working with the program for 33 years. In my files in the basement are representative letters I saved from constituents, thanking me for the help I provided them and their families over the years. I treasure them, and those letters reinforce to me that my career was worthwhile and made a difference.
One of the great pleasures for Robert Kent in the “glory days” was the close relationships he formed with 4-H families. Photo and caption courtesy of Robert Kent.
A colleague at another land grant college told me that when he was hired the dean said,
“Never pass up an opportunity to help someone.”
It comes down to that. Working with that principle in mind is where my sense of joy and mission in Extension came from.
However, I was recently struck by this sentence by Scott J. Peters, describing how he sees Extension today, in the preface of the reissued The People’s Colleges: A History of the New York State Extension Service in Cornell University and the State, 1876-1948:
“Yet, to me at least, things feel smaller and flatter today, less joyful and spirited than how I imagine they felt during the times we read about in the pages of this book.”
That sentence really resonated with me.
Recently I happened to be with some of the folks I worked with in the early days of my career and we all had the same thought: we had worked during the “glory days” of Extension. That got me to pondering what was so special back then that we felt that times were better.
Here’s a list of things I came up with that made Extension work seem so special back then.
Extension staff based in counties throughout New York had very close relationships with each other. This came about through regular regional and statewide meetings. We all knew each other, we all worked together on regional and statewide programs, and we all supported and helped each other.
Extension staff had close relationships with faculty. Many faculty members regularly traveled throughout our state providing support to local programs. They formed relationships with local people. Locally based Extension staff served on committees to give input and guidance to faculty about their Extension efforts. We all felt part of one program, jointly created.
Joy and satisfaction comes from being part of a community that supports its members, and we had a strong sense of that. When I was with the 4-H program, I knew 4-H staff in every county in the state. I always knew if I had trouble on the road while traveling the local 4-H agents would help me out.
“Close and frequent contact with Cornell faculty led to a sense of being part of a larger state-wide program.” — Robert Kent with Dr. Samuel Sabin from the Animal Science Department at Cornell. Sabin oversaw the 4-H horse club program. He as well as many other extension faculty members traveled around the state frequently to stay in touch with local staff and programs. Photo and caption courtesy of Robert Kent.
- Freedom to address local needs
Although we were part of a larger effort, our programs addressed local needs very closely, and we had the freedom to develop programs that our various constituents wanted.
- Administrative support for a shared sense of mission
Our administrative leaders at the University also made us feel we were part of something special, and they stayed in frequent contact with us. I also don’t recall being always worried about the budget for the program.
Toward the end my career, however, I had an administrative position and often worried even at night how I was going to keep everyone working. Our funding became softer, relying more on grants as core funding shrank either through direct cuts or level funding over long periods of time. Staff need to have a sense of security to be happy and effective.
With funding cuts, travel decreased and we no longer could stay in touch with each other through regular regional and statewide meetings. I think the sense of being part of a large community diminished as that happened.
These days, I hear staff complain that their time available to help people and to develop programs is being squeezed by the time they have to spend doing reports. The amount of time spent justifying programs and documenting impacts has increased as budgets have become tighter.
Perhaps those were simpler times when I started my career.
But I do believe that the sense of joy and excitement in Extension work comes from having the freedom to develop programs that really address the needs of the people one is trying to serve, and from feeling one is part of a very important mission that has the support of the institution one works for.
Anything that Extension leaders today can do to instill that sense of mission and importance throughout the system can help either bring the glory days back, or keep them alive where they still exist. Perhaps the most important way to do that is to find ways to keep people in close contact with each other so that they feel part of something larger than themselves and their own programs.
The issues today are as pressing and important as they were in the beginning of Extension and “the glory days.” The land grant colleges have much to offer in our changing world to help communities find solutions to today’s problems. The work is certainly no less important than it was in days gone by.
Robert Kent is retired from Cooperative Extension and still lives in New York State.
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