At an early stage in our Michigan State University Extension redesign process, I had the opportunity to ask President Simon to share her vision for what our change process should achieve. She told me that she expected to create a model for Cooperative Extension that is relevant to and addresses the needs of Michigan in the 21st century. That vision has been at the center of my thoughts as we have gone through this process. That she chose the word “create” has been especially significant for me. To create suggests that we really are making something new and not just adjusting what we’ve been. It’s a more radical concept of change and suggests that we’re doing much more than “moving the chairs around on the deck (of a sinking ship).” It also calls for a new culture in MSUE, refocusing us on program delivery in ways that we would adopt if we were just creating Extension in today’s times with today’s technologies and today’s understanding of organizations.
Just as the clients our Product Center innovation counselors serve are going through the start-up phases of their enterprises, we in MSUE are going through the startup phase of an enterprise. The main difference is that ours is an enterprise with many years of experience and insight and achievement that can inform our change process. But we really are feeling many of the uncertainties and anxieties that go along with an individual or team going through the process of creating a new business, farming operation, community organization or family.
I heard a somewhat similar perspective on our role in the 21st century at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) meeting in Dallas, Texas, this week. Dr. Gordon Gee, president of The Ohio State University (twice), and former president of other land-grant and private universities, spoke about the role of land-grant universities in the 21st century. The motivation for his address was the fact that in 2012, we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the passage and signing of the Morrill Act that engaged the federal government in the experiment that pioneers in Michigan had begun seven years earlier. President Gee spoke to the importance of access for all and economic development at the farm and business level in the case that was made for creating land-grant colleges and universities in 1862. Like President Simon, he pointed out that those needs are still great in our communities, our nation and the world, and he challenged the U.S. to recommit itself to this great land-grant university experiment into the future. He called for legislation that would reenact the original Morrill Act. What a provocative idea! Although the words he used are slightly different from President Simon’s, President Gee’s intent was clearly in the direction of creating the land grants anew, rather than simply perpetuating them as they were at their outset. A recommitment should accomplish more than perpetuating. It should achieve a new model for access to university resources and should address the big economic opportunities of our times.
At another session at APLU, our own Dr. Rick Foster, Greening Michigan Institute director, was asked what land-grant universities need most in order to address the most challenging aspects of America’s economic revitalization. His answer was not what audience members expected. He said that the singular most important asset for a university was to have a president who could articulate and lead towards a vision that propels land-grant universities to create new economic opportunities and enhance the quality of life. Some of those visions will take decades to achieve. But if other land-grant universities have leaders like MSU and OSU, I think we can all succeed in creating something new that will have lasting impacts on the people we serve across the nation.