The director of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service urged colleagues nationwide to uphold their role in giving people access to cutting edge research and teaching.

“The Extension education model is sound, timeless, and much needed in today’s complex world,” said Dr. Ed Smith of College Station.

Smith spoke recently in Syracuse, N.Y., to professional educators who carry out the Extension education function of each state’s land-grant university. He reminded the audience about federal legislation, starting with the Morrill Act, that created the national network known as the land-grant university system.

“I would argue that the evolution of the land-grant system from 1862 to 1914 led to impacts both nationally and worldwide that not only exceeded the economic and social goals envisioned by our forefathers, but are just as necessary today,” said Smith.

 Legislators charged one university in each state, which was connected to research and teaching in agriculture and life sciences, to extend education for the public good, beyond those enrolled at the school, he explained.

“We have land-grant system leaders who fail to recognize or uphold Extension when it represents the only mission of land-grant systems that delineates their uniqueness,” Smith said.

 “Extension is not just ‘service,’‘engagement’ or ‘outreach,’” Smith said. “If it were, then every university would have in place all components of the land-grant system and, therefore, the designation would recognize only a historical funding mechanism and not the institutional contract with society that continues to add significant value to this nation.”

Smith, the AgriLife Extension director since 2005, spoke as the recipient of the Distinguished Service Ruby Award for 2011.The Distinguished Ruby is the highest award presented by Epsilon Sigma Phi, the national Extension professional fraternity. The mission of the 6,000-member organization is “to foster standards of excellence in the Extension system and developing the Extension profession and the professional.”

System works

Smith also said the system has worked through the years – and will continue to do so – because leaders recognized early on that local buy-in was vital.

In Texas, Smith said, AgriLife Extension partners with 254 county commissioners’ courts and includes some 570 county agents, 260 specialists and more than 43,000 participants at the county, regional and state level to identify the priorities that they feel will add economic value to their region.

“So needs are identified by the people we serve; our agents and specialists also provide input into the process based on their expertise and training. If the issues are within Extension’s mission and the research is currently available, the agents and specialists package the educational programs and deliver them to the clientele,” he said.

“If the research is not available or is only partially so, then the agents and specialists work with research scientists to develop or enhance the necessary knowledge. Thus the model not only informs Extension, it also informs the teaching and research functions.”

Smith also noted there are more than 107,000 volunteers trained by AgriLife Extension who then support agency efforts toward reaching millions of people in Texas.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the Extension program development model can be classified as a principle that is timeless and unalterable,” he added.

Smith cited several attributes that future Extension leaders nationwide must have, including:

  • Selfless service –having the integrity and ethics to put the institution above personal matters or ambitions when making decisions.
  • Complete understanding of what makes “Extension” unique—what makes it different from outreach, engagement and service.
  • Value for all components of the land-grant system: teaching, research and service in addition to Extension. “Understand that the value of the total system is greater than the sum of the parts,” he said.
  • Passionate support and ability to interpret the relevance, value and impacts of Extension.
  • Commitment to uphold local program delivery based on the priorities identified by the constituency.
  • Desire to deliver programs in an alternative and consequences approach. “Families, businesses, communities and state and federal governments are too complex to be prescriptive,” Smith said. “We must deliver the best science with enough practical information that the decision-maker can make an informed decision.”