MSU Extension: Proven

Over the past nine months, members of the Michigan State University Extension administrative team worked together to refine and clarify some message points that we would like to use in describing MSU Extension to stakeholders and decision makers. We tried to capture the essence of MSU Extension with three words, “Proven”, “Relevant” and “Life-changing”.  As we embark on a new calendar year and new plans-of-work, it will be helpful to keep these three words in mind as we plan, reflect on and communicate about our work.  Today I will expand on the meaning of the word “Proven” in relation to the work of MSU Extension, and in future postings I will explore the words “Relevant” and “Life-changing”.

That our work is proven really has two different but complementary meanings. In one sense, it refers to the fact that we aspire to deliver information, analyses and skills that are based on the most current research findings. This is the promise of an outreach enterprise that is based at a research institution like Michigan State University.  By connecting to and calling upon experts who are conducting cutting-edge research, we are well positioned to ensure that our information, analyses and curricula live up to these high expectations.

In another sense, the statement that our work is proven reflects the historic fact that we have been engaged in the work of extending knowledge to the people of Michigan for a long time, more than 100 years.  I think it’s fair to assert that an institution that has contributed to dramatic changes in our economy, technology and well-being for more than 100 years is a proven organization.

Simply stating that our work is proven is not enough.  We cannot rest on the accomplishments of our past to justify our work going forward. Indeed, we need to challenge ourselves to reflect on what it means to be “research-based” in the 21st Century, and in the context of today’s science and technology. We make strong assertions about being “unbiased” in our work. Yet it is dishonest to stake the claim of non-bias. Rather, we need to be clear about what our biases are and to account for how we check our claims against those biases.

In addition, we need to challenge ourselves to be even more effective at capturing information and analyses from non-traditional approaches into our work.  As data become more accessible to the public, and as our partners and clients become more sophisticated in their own analyses and ways of knowing, we need to ensure that we don’t ignore these new approaches, while doing so with great caution and skepticism, just as we should with any more conventional approaches to generating new knowledge and understanding. In addition, knowledge gained through practical experience and through cultural traditions can be helpful in addressing issues for which we provide instruction and information.  We need to develop more formalized ways of using this information, while being transparent to the potential biases that may come with these ways of knowing.

In more concrete terms, one of the opportunities we need to pursue in 2014 is shoring up the connection between the expertise of faculty who conduct research and the information, analyses and programs we provide to clients and stakeholders in communities across the state.  One of the challenges we faced as we went through organizational change and budget reductions over the past four years was how to ensure that the program content of what we delivered in the field had the integrity we expect of research-based programs. One of the changes we used in order to ensure high quality, research-based Extension programs was to align field staff in administrative units based on program expertise rather than on their geographic assignment.

The formation of program institutes was our structural answer to this challenge, but we formed these institutes fully cognizant of the fact that academic units on campus also are aligned in areas of programmatic expertise.  For a number of reasons, as program areas became the primary axis driving field-based work, some faculty in academic units on campus have felt separated from and disengaged from the work of Extension. Some have seen the program institutes as competitors to academic units. The creation of the institutes was not meant to be an effort to compete with academic units. Rather, the intent was to align field and program academic staff with areas of programmatic expertise so as to allow better linkage between campus-based expertise and field-based programming.

I think it’s fair to say that our efforts are still works in progress in this respect. In the months ahead, the MSU Extension administrative team will be working closely with academic unit leaders, faculty and Extension academic and programmatic staff to develop more effective ways of linking expertise to programs and strengthening our programs AND research through collaboration rather than through competition. These efforts will only be successful if they engage faculty and field academic staff equally in our work.

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