About 6 months ago I wrote a little article about what I perceived to be the most significant problem within extension, which is that extension personnel, and specifically tenured and tenure track faculty, simply don’t receive recognition or credit for accomplishing their job. In this essay I’m going to give a specific example of this problem.
Normally, when someone does what they are assigned to do, they are rewarded, or at least an acknowledgement is made that they are performing satisfactorily. For example, when a salesperson is given a job whose description says specifically that they are to sell vegetables, then, if this salesperson sells a lot of vegetables, his or her supervisor rates him or her accordingly. Sure, the salesperson’s supervisor could suggest that he or she help sell meat too, but if the supervisor doesn’t formally change the job description, then we would think it was pretty unreasonable to downgrade the vegetable salesperson too far for not selling much meat.
The job assigned to faculty with extension appointments is to transfer research based information to the people who they are assigned to serve. Let’s take someone who all of you are familiar with as an example. Linda Chalker-Scott is assigned to deliver relevant research-based horticultural information to the public. Linda is a great example because she has done her job so effectively, using a multitude of techniques to spread information to an incredibly broad audience. She has published multiple books, one of which won the gold and silver award of achievement from the Garden Writer’s Association. She has published in newspapers and magazines such as Fine Gardening where she is currently a contributing editor, she is the most prolific writer on both the Garden Professor’s blog and Facebook page, she has appeared on Growing a Greener World, and soon you’ll be able to hear her 24 lecture course for the well known Great Courses series (I am so jealous of this!). The list goes on and on. By all accounts Linda has worked hard to become a nationally and internationally known source of research based information for the consumer. Right now she is probably the top urban and consumer extension horticulture faculty in the United States in terms of population reached and quality of information delivered. If you rate her anywhere out of the top three then please post a comment here to let me know who is doing a better job.
So, why hasn’t Linda Chalker-Scott’s extension work been reviewed, recognized, appreciated and rewarded for the good publicity that she has brought to her University and the valuable service that she provides for the people of Washington (and beyond)? I’m not at liberty to disclose all that I know but, in my opinion, her extension work has been downplayed over the last three years to the point that it actually seems to me to have done her career more harm than good. This all goes back to my belief that extension work is neither understood nor appreciated by higher education. I have two possible cures for this problem:
1. Start appreciating the work that extension faculty do. No, it doesn’t bring in big research dollars, and no, it doesn’t yield articles in journals like Science and Nature (Though some extension professors, like Linda, do such an incredible job scouring the literature on particular topics that they actually publish review papers on those topics. For example, Linda has published reviews on anthocyanins, mulches and biodiversity). What it does do is deliver useful research based information to the masses. It stops people from overusing phosphorus in their lawns, it teaches people to identify diseased plants, it encourages people to use appropriate techniques to combat weeds and pests, it informs the public about how dangerous GMOs really are. The list goes on and on.
2. Just give it up. If universities don’t want to reward, or even appreciate the work that extension faculty do in terms of public education then hey, let’s not have extension faculty. Instead we could hire non-faculty personnel without significant research knowledge to spread research information. No, they won’t have the same respectability without the Ph.D. or title (such as assistant professor, associate professor or full professor), and there’s a good chance that they’ll get things wrong because of their lack of research experience (which is why most Land Grant Universities currently have a hierarchy built into their extension systems with University based faculty on top distributing information to extension agents) but they won’t have the same expectations either – And the administration won’t have the admittedly sticky situation of needing to figure out what a faculty member’s extension work is worth as compared to another faculty member’s research and/or teaching.
Maybe there’s a third option? I don’t know. All I can say is that it is time to have the conversation about what successful extension work is worth at the highest academic levels.

4 thoughts on “Extension….Again”

  1. I am a volunteer Master Gardener and am astounded that the volunteers are not recognized or thanked for their work. Surveys go out and they are not mentioned by name although the programs that they do are mentioned. Their is very little about them in the end of year report (I have reviewed about 50 extension end of year reports) and the list goes on. I have volunteered for a lot of organizations over the years and the volunteers are always thanked by the director and board. When new volunteers come into the group they need to feel valued and recognized. I’m sorry to be off topic but perhaps there is a filter down affect going on.

  2. I agree. But the problem is that most Adminstraters have been research people and have absolutely no appreciation for Extension faculty.

  3. My goodness, this comes off as you being a degree snob. At our University, Extension Agents are required to do – and publish- research, just like you Ph.d.-types. I guess we can now go back to our Admin to tell them we aren’t worthy, because we just don’t know what research really is. Thank heavens you pointed out that we just need to wait for our Specialists to distribute information to us – in our case, we’re LUCKY to have any Specialist actually do Extension work, rather than just take the money. How refreshing to sit back and wait for them to tell us what to say!

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