Farewell to a model Extension professional

Nearly five years ago, we were in the midst of a search process to hire the second of two associate directors for Michigan State University ExtensionDr. Steve Lovejoy had joined us from Purdue in 2006 as Associate Director for Programs and in 2007, our search for an Associate Director for Operations yielded an opportunity to hire a seasoned Extension professional from Penn State, Dr. Michelle Rodgers.  Over the past five years, I have been fortunate to work side-by-side with both of these colleagues as we sought to position MSUE to succeed in a challenging environment with great needs for our organization’s expertise and services.  During our restructuring process, we quickly realized that the lines we had drawn between programmatic responsibilities and operational responsibilities were too confining and we simply decided to work together as a team. We knew we would need to divide work responsibilities, but at times it might call on any one of us to take on operational or programmatic duties and we agreed that we would simply delegate the tasks as they presented themselves and as they matched with any particular individual’s skills and competencies.

The experience we have gained as a team has given each of us opportunities to stretch and develop skills that we might not have anticipated needing.  It’s been a rich experience for me and I think it has been for Michelle and Steve.  With those experiences, I knew that I was not likely to keep the team intact: both of my colleagues have great leadership skills and knowing that leadership opportunities open frequently in Cooperative Extension, I was certain that other institutions would be interested in benefiting from their leadership.

I was not surprised when Dr. Rodgers was recruited for and offered the opportunity to serve as Director of Cooperative Extension at the University of Delaware. She is a consummate Extension professional, with tremendous experience as an educator, a county extension director, and a regional director at Penn State and as an associate director at MSU.  As an organization and as a director’s office team, we have benefited tremendously from her experience, her insights and creativity, and her great work ethic.  She can manage an amazing number of projects at once, is determined to follow through on the essential details, and can conduct a difficult conversation with grace and respect.  She’s never satisfied with “good enough.” She always strives for doing what is “great.”

She has taught me a great deal about the mission of Cooperative Extension and the value that our programs can produce for farms, businesses, families and communities across the state.  We – all of MSU Extension – will miss her leadership and positive spirit. At the same time, I’m extremely pleased to know that another state’s Cooperative Extension program will benefit from her leadership. And I know that she will provide valuable leadership to Cooperative Extension across the nation.  We’ve been fortunate to work with her for five years and especially the challenging five years she has spent with us.

It seems incongruous to acknowledge the tremendous work that Michelle has provided us and yet to decide that we will not replace Michelle with a new person as Associate Director.  Her work was critical to our successful transformation, so how can we continue in our continued work without her or someone else in her role?  Quite simply, with the budget and staff reductions we’ve made over the past two years, I think we need to challenge ourselves in the administrative team to reevaluate what we need to achieve and how we will carry out our work with fewer resources. That should sound familiar, in that it is something we have communicated routinely during our adjustment to reduced budgets: we simply need to find ways to do the work we MUST get done, but with fewer employees. In some cases, that means we’ll do things differently. In other cases, it means we won’t do some of the things we have been doing with three in the Director’s office team.  And we’re far enough along in our change process that we OUGHT to be able to reduce some of the tasks we’ve felt a need to carry out as we worked together to plan and implement our changes. We’re not done changing, but hopefully the amount and pace of change will be reduced from what it has been in the past few years.

Michelle officially begins her role as Director at Delaware in April.  This week, she spent a few days at the annual national meeting of Extension Directors and Administrators, and fit in as the newest member of the Extension leadership team.  As she moves on to her new opportunities, I hope Michelle will always remember how much she meant to us as a Spartan and how much she contributed to not just saving our organization, but strengthening it during a very challenging time. Whatever she may face in Delaware, I am confident she will excel in leading them through the challenges they may face and prepare them to build on the opportunities that come their way.

Thanks, Michelle. You are a great model for all of us of what an Extension professional can do to help people improve their lives through education. We wish you easy sailing in Delaware!

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