What does it mean when we say that Michigan State University Extension is relevant? It begs the follow-up: relevant to what? President Lou Anna Simon addressed this in her presentation to the Women in Agribusiness Conference in Marlette, Mich., last Friday, Jan. 24. Her comments were more specific to what defines the research agenda for MSU faculty, but they apply to the Extension mission as well. She said that at MSU, we aspire to anticipate the challenges of the future and conduct research today so that we will have information and understanding we’ll need for addressing those future challenges. She also said that if we’ve done this well in the past, then we should be well positioned to address today’s challenges as well.
Ultimately, we intend for our MSU Extension programs to be relevant to the key challenges people are facing today. We also want to be mindful of likely future challenges so that we can be prepared to address those as they emerge.
But even with that philosophical vision, it’s impossible for us to be responsive to all challenges that people might face today and in the future. So our intention to be relevant must be constrained in some way. And the way we define those boundaries is by confining our work to areas for which we have access to the expertise of faculty and academic/Extension staff at MSU.
We are organized in a way that defines our relevance boundaries, specifically in the broad areas of expertise within our four program institutes: agriculture and agribusiness, child and youth development, community and natural resource development, and health and nutrition. So to ensure that our programs are relevant, we need to regularly check on current and emerging issues and remain informed about and engaged in research in these broad areas, with specific attention to issues in Michigan.
We have some great examples of recent efforts to be relevant: Agriculture and Agribusiness Institute (AABI) work groups focused on animal and plant production and environmental quality were able to respond rapidly to the drought and hard-freeze conditions that emerged as a critical issue for agriculture in 2012.
The Finance and Housing work group members had been a small group focused on home ownership and other issues related to consumer financial literacy. They had built linkages to networks of educators and researchers at other land-grant universities and in other organizations committed to improving financial literacy. As a result, when Michigan homeowners and consumers encountered tremendous challenges during the financial crisis of 2008-2010, our colleagues were prepared to provide programming of critical need just as people needed it. Their efforts helped some clients retain ownership of their homes, and assisted others in recovering from foreclosure. The best way to be relevant is to be prepared. And both of these examples reinforce that lesson.
As we challenge ourselves to be relevant now and in the future, we are in a position to adopt more formalized and systematic ways of assessing needs for research and Extension programs. Some of that already occurs in the processes that each institute uses to develop their annual plans of work. Some of that occurs when faculty and other research specialists are invited to speak at conferences and webinars on emerging issues. Some of that occurs in discussions with program participants, through either structured dialogues or perhaps Turning Point or Web surveys. All of these audiences are important to include in the needs assessment process: educators, faculty, program instructors and associates, stakeholders, program participants, industry and community leaders, and elected officials. There is no single prescription that guides needs assessment for all programs. But as we continue to refine and improve our program planning, we need to challenge ourselves to be as systematic and unbiased as possible in determining what programs we should be developing for current and future needs.