Bringing People and Ideas Together

More and more, academia is falling out of favor with the American populace.  Over the past several years we have experienced increased public distrust of universities, decreased funding for public higher education, and increased scrutiny into how faculty spend their time.  Some would go so far as to say that the results of the recent presidential election were influenced partly by the anti-science, anti-expert, anti-intellectual movement that appears to be sweeping the country.  Are academics out-of-touch elitists and technocrats?  Maybe some are.

But I like to think that we in Extension are different.  Seaman Knapp, known to many of us as the Father of Extension, reportedly advised new faculty against ever referring to themselves as “experts.”  One hundred years ago, new Extension agents in Ohio were introduced to their communities as “not a man who comes to criticize existing methods and force his own ideas, but is rather a clearing house where all may bring their problems and work them out together.”

Some of the work of Extension involves delivery of educational programming designed to share useful and practical information with the people of the state. Even when we do so, I believe we do that in a manner that is respectful and non-threatening.

But with Siri, Alexa, and Cortana always by our side to answer any questions we might have, some people are suggesting that Extension isn’t as useful as it was in the past.  Even legislators have pointed to their smart phones and said “I can find any information I need on this.”  We can’t justify our existence solely as educators or information providers.

I believe we need to speak more loudly and frequently of our work as catalysts for community decision-making and positive change.  By working in this way, we back out of the expert role and become a partner in co-creating solutions to issues people care about. The “work” therefore involves bringing local knowledge and science-based information together in a manner that recognizes and honors both.

Consequently, you will hear me using the phrase “bringing people and ideas together” when describing the work of Extension.  By referring to our work in this way, we help shape a more relevant and responsive image of academia.

Does Our Language Need Refreshing?

Over the years, we in Extension have developed certain words and phrases to describe our work. Among those descriptive phrases is “research-based education.” Other terms include unbiased, non-formal, practical, and responsive. But according to findings of a recent national survey of Extension administrators, some of these phrases might be due for a refreshing.

When asked whether Extension’s method for accomplishing its work was education, engagement, or both interesting results emerged. Not a single individual said that our method was solely education. Twenty percent said that our method was engagement while eighty percent said that our work is a mix of education and engagement. This latter perspective suggests Extension sometimes serves in a convener role working in partnership with community members to co-create solutions to local problems. In this role we enter into a partnership with the community based on reciprocity and mutual benefit where we both learn from each other.

The same group was also asked to indicate whether they prefer to use “research-based” or “science-based” when describing the derivation of the content we communicate. Fifty-seven percent preferred “science-based” while less than one-third preferred “research-based.” A move toward using the phrase “science-based” may also be supported by studies that have shown a more positive public perception of the word “science” than the word “research.” Interestingly, the word science is derived from the Latin word for “knowledge.” Contrasting with that are definitions of research that characterize it as a process of acquiring knowledge.

Finally comes the word “unbiased.” Some would say that higher education is inherently biased toward empirical ways of knowing truth and tends to disregard pragmatism, intuition, authority, revelation, and rationalism.

What are your thoughts about how we communicate what we do?

The Importance of Context

About twenty years ago, Extension was introduced to the notion of developing logic models which graphically depicted how our program activities translated into desired outcomes. Central to the logic modeling process what the assumption that a behavior change could be catalyzed by an educational process focused on the acquisition of knowledge or skills. But without a context or environment that reinforces the desired behavior, the likelihood of observing a behavior change is significantly reduced.

By not attending to context, we are placing all of the burden of behavioral change on the learner. It doesn’t matter how hard we teach or how well we teach, if the social, economic, and environmental conditions don’t reinforce the change. For example, most all of us would agree that we need to exercise more, but how many of us engage in the recommended amount of physical activity each week? Frequently, it is because of the context in which we live, work, or learn.

The examples are not limited to health and wellness. Can we expect agricultural producers to change their practices based on knowledge alone? Are there market or regulatory factors that might influence what information a farmer chooses to act on? We know that there are.

But can the contexts in which people live, work, and learn be changed? The answer is yes. Research shows that we can influence students to make healthier food choices simply by changing how foods are presented in a lunch line? To see how Polly Loy in Belmont County was able to encourage people in her community to increase their physical activity by attention to context, watch the WTRF story at

Can you think of other examples of how Extension programs have changed policies, systems, and environments to encourage behavior change?

Building a Culture of Health

The United States spends more money on health care than any nation in the world yet continues to fall behind on important health outcomes. For example, it wasn’t very many years ago that Americans had a life expectancy that was among the longest of any country in the world. Today, the United States ranks 43rd in the world in life expectancy.  What’s more alarming is that the longer members of some new immigrant populations reside in this country, the more their health deteriorates. But what seems to be at the root of our nation’s deteriorating health?

Some people would argue that we don’t actually have a “health care” system. Instead, they would say that we have a “sick care” system focused on treating people after they have fallen ill. Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 86% of the nation’s health care dollar is spent managing chronic disease. Sadly, a large portion of chronic disease is preventable.

Recently, however, we have begun to see more attention placed on upstream, preventive actions aimed at maintaining health and wellness. These efforts focus not only on changing individual behavior through education but influencing what are referred to as the “social and environmental determinants” of health. For example, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is spearheading an effort to build a “culture of health” in every community across the nation.

The Cooperative Extension System is a part of these efforts to improve health and well-being. In 2014, the ECOP Task Force on Health challenged the Cooperative Extension System to boldly proclaim the contributions it makes toward ensuring lifelong health and well-being for Americans and serve as a champion for mobilizing broader university outreach related to health and wellness.

The report of the Task Force was accepted and endorsed by various boards and committees of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. A Healthy Food Systems, Healthy People Steering Committee was created to develop a broad-based initiative to improve human health and reduce chronic disease by capitalizing upon university expertise in agriculture, nutrition, community development, and the human sciences.

If we know that knowledge is not always enough to change behavior, how might Extension work in different ways to build a community culture that makes it easier for residents to implement healthy behaviors?

“Let us be progressive and keep up with the times!”

A challenge from the new director? No, not exactly. These words appeared in print exactly 100 years ago today in the Knox County Democratic Banner. The words were part of an article written by Kathryn Anderson explaining the process by which counties could secure their own “county agent.”

The article goes on to say that any county that desires an agent may receive an “appropriation of $1,590 from the federal and state governments, $1,200 going to the agent’s salary and $390 toward the maintenance of his own automobile.” A county contribution toward this work could come from commissioners, the local Farm Bureau association, and individual contributions.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the article was the section related to the role of the agent. According to the article, “he is not a man who comes to criticize existing methods and force his own ideas, but is rather a clearing house where all may bring their problems and work them out together.” While the gender specific language of the statement is a bit out of date, the idea is not.

Collaborative problem-solving is at the heart of the contemporary community engagement movement occurring in higher education. When we use an engaged approach, we recognize the value of indigenous knowledge that resides within a community and work with members of that community to co-create solutions.

Granted, there are still many situations where the diffusion of innovation or best practices is the central objective of our work. In these cases we recommend a preferred course of action based on what we know to be true through by way of science. This approach in often used when citizens are not even aware of the problems that could arise from their current practices. But even when dissemination of information or behavior change is the goal, it is important that we share knowledge with respect for our learners and the decisions they make regarding their lives and their livelihoods.

Yes, we want to keep up with the times. But I also believe that there are some enduring values like respectful engagement that transcend the past, present, and future.

Thanks to Bob Joseph, chair of the OARDC Advisory Committee for sharing the information from the Knox Democratic Banner.

Extension Well Positioned for Lasting Relevance

Extension’s century-old approach to “listening first” is as relevant today as ever.

At least that is my take-home message from remarks made by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during his recent visit to The Ohio State University. Vilsack was here to announce targeted assistance to 11 rural Ohio counties through the USDA StrikeForce Initiative. StrikeForce is a collaborative effort among government agencies to work in partnership with local communities to address local issues arising from chronic poverty. The Ohio counties targeted by the initiative are Adams, Athens, Fayette, Guernsey, Jackson, Lucas, Meigs, Morgan, Pike, Scioto, and Vinton.

During his remarks, Vilsack drove home the importance of an approach utilized by the Cooperative Extension System over a hundred years. Rather than having well-meaning outsiders prescribe what a community needs to achieve prosperity, a more effective strategy involves engaging with people in a community to learn about their dreams, wishes, and desires and helping them obtain the resources they need to realize their goals. In particular, Extension specializes in mobilizing the resources of the land-grant university system and bringing them to bear on issues of local communities. In this model, Extension serves as a two-way expressway between universities and communities that produces a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge.

I also believe that Extension is uniquely positioned to hear what communities are saying. Because many Extension educators live in the counties they are charged to serve, they have first-hand knowledge of the issues affecting the residents of those counties. Our educators live there with the goal of not only making a living, but a life. Furthermore, Extension doesn’t close up shop when grant funds run out or an article is published using data gathered from the community. We are there for the duration.

Vilsack’s remarks also made me wonder how OSU Extension can best support the USDA’s StrikeForce initiative in these counties. How can we leverage our positional advantage and positive reputation in communities to play a meaningful role in sustainable community change?