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Cooperative Extension will be restructured

By Charlie Stott

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 05 - September 21, 1995

Virginia Cooperative Extension will be smaller, more specialized, more tightly focused, and more highly trained, according to a restructuring plan developed by Virginia Tech.

The five-point plan released this week calls for a more streamlined administration; greater investment and use of information technology; a focus on Extension's original mission, including agriculture at the local level; increasing outside revenue; and strengthening Extension's relationship with local governments.

"We believe that these concepts and this plan will result in a reinvigorated, tightly focused, and effective Cooperative Extension for the 21st century," Virginia Tech President Paul E. Torgersen said in announcing the restructuring plan.

"Cooperative Extension has experienced budget reductions of more than 20 percent over the past five years. We believe that we can accomplish this restructuring within existing resources, but not with less," Torgersen said. "We understand that change does not take place overnight. However, now that our direction is set, with the help of our state, federal, and local partners, we believe that the future of Cooperative Extension is bright indeed."

C. Clark Jones, interim director of VCE, agreed. "The five principles described by Drs. Torgersen and Meszaros (Virginia Tech provost) will help us become the most responsive and innovative Extension organization in the nation."

Jones added, "We are excited. These changes are going to be challenging for those within the organization. But, they are designed so that we are better able to serve the state and its people. We are in the people business. We can point to many, many significant accomplishments. But we cannot, we will not rest on our record. We must be and will be prepared to 'make a difference' today and for many tomorrows.

"Cooperative Extension has played an important role in improving the economic well-being and the quality of life for the people of our state. With the changes outlined in this plan, VCE is ready to enhance its support of the people now and into the 21st century.

"It will be smaller, more streamlined, and closer than ever to the needs of local communities and the citizens of the state," Jones said. "We will be restructured and re-energized. One thing that has not changed is our dedication to the people of Virginia, their enterprises and their lives. We will continue to provide practical education-education that makes a daily difference-to the people close to their homes and workplaces."

Virginia Cooperative Extension is the educational outreach arm of Virginia Tech and Virginia State universities. It has programs in agriculture, home economics, and 4-H youth development delivered from 107 offices around the state.

For more than 75 years, VCE has provided education and information to the farms, families, and communities of the state from these local offices. It brings practical, research-based knowledge to the people of the state to improve the quality of life and advance economic development. It is a "cooperative" in that it has always been a partnership of land-grant universities, state, federal and local governments, and countless volunteers.

Throughout its history, Cooperative Extension has successfully fulfilled its mission of enabling individuals, families, and communities to become more self-sufficient.

Torgersen noted, however, "We live in a time when all organizations, public and private, are faced with the need for change. Government organizations in particular are being challenged to focus, to streamline, and to become more accountable. The taxpayer is entitled to no less."

He said Virginia Tech has "anticipated and welcomed this challenge" as shown by its highly praised restructuring process of recent years. While VCE has participated in that restructuring, it also has been at the center of further discussions on campus and in state government, starting with a state Department of Planning and Budget (DPB) study in 1992-93 and continuing through the last session of the General Assembly.

The DPB study directed Extension to focus more on youth and family programs, but more recently, VCE has been told to place more emphasis on agricultural programs. At the request of the General Assembly, Virginia Tech conducted a review of Cooperative Extension and developed this restructuring plan.

"For the 21st century we see a smaller, more specialized, tightly focused, and highly trained Extension that is able to deliver more timely information to more people more effectively," Torgersen said.

"The Extension agent of the 21st century will be a true educator of the information age, linked directly to the research base of Virginia's land-grant universities. Extension will become more technology-based and market-driven, providing educational programming and technical information in ways that respond directly to the needs of citizens, businesses, and government at the local level."

Torgersen said the restructuring plan meets the General Assembly's directives. "However, we feel that they go beyond the mandate to the spirit of transforming Extension into an organization that will be prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century and beyond."

The restructuring plan will:

1) Streamline administration-a 40-percent reduction in administrative positions, from 20 to 12, and no more than one level of management between the local agent and the administration in Blacksburg. This reorganization will free resources for additional programming at the local level.

Jones said, "We already have cut deeply into our management structure and we're going to reduce that further. Those resources will be redirected closer to local people and communities and will allow us to be more responsive to their needs." One way to be more responsive, he said, is through enhanced use of modern information technology, which is the second point in the restructuring plan.

2) Investing in information technology. "Today, computers can put incredible amounts of information at our fingertips. We must use that capability to help our citizens and communities to find not just a jumble of facts and figures but information pertinent to today's problems. By tying these computers together we can put the resources of Virginia Tech and Virginia State universities into every community," Jones said.

The plan calls for reallocating salary savings from positions lost through the state's Workforce Transition Act. Tech would replace only 22 of 70 positions vacated through the WTA and would invest the salary savings in training VCE personnel and in the technology "to become more productive with fewer employees," Torgersen said.

"This mirrors the trend that has been followed in industry. We believe that through information technology, Virginia Cooperative Extension can enhance its service to the commonwealth and set an example for other states." He emphasized, however, that retaining the salary savings from the vacated positions "is critical to the restructuring we envision."

3) Place the priority on the original mission, including agriculture at the local level. VCE would put an additional 22 agricultural agents in the field, would maintain the current number of 4-H agents, and would reduce home economics agents by approximately 15 percent, nine positions. It also wants to retain critical agricultural specialist positions-such as in forages, poultry, and soybeans-that are now vacant because of recent retirements.

4-H would combine the efforts of agents and paraprofessionals to expand the opportunities for Virginia youth to participate in 4-H programs. The remaining home economics agents will be asked "to direct a portion of their efforts to cooperating with local governments to make welfare reform a success."

4) Increase outside revenues. The General Assembly directed Cooperative Extension to develop a plan to substantially increase support from sources other than state general funds. While many ideas have surfaced, this aspect needs further study before a plan is submitted to the state government in mid-October.

"The philosophy of Extension has always been one of making information available free of charge," said Torgersen. However, two programs that hold promise for increased outside support have been tentatively identified. It is believed that homeowners will be willing to pay for research-based information in consumer horticulture, and the Community Resource Development programs will be moved from state funds to be supported through user fees, grants and contracts, and other funding. Other possibilities for additional funds in all programs are available through grants, contracts, or fees for educational services.

5) Strengthen Extension's relationship with local government. Over the next year, VCE will be working with local governments to redefine relationships and the boundaries in which Extension agents work. With the loss of operating funds and personnel in recent years and because of the complexity of information necessary to address local issues, VCE can no longer provide service one county or city at a time.

Jones said that programming across political boundaries is not only inevitable, but advantageous, because it can bring greater specialization and expertise to bear on particular issues and problems.

"Fortunately, with our proposed investments in information technology, time and distance become less of an issue," said Torgersen. "Our goal is to emphasize educational programming and technical assistance which local citizens and governments will be able to choose according to their own priorities. We intend to maintain an Extension presence in every locality that desires one, but programming must be conceived on an area-wide basis if it is to continue to be effective."

Torgersen said these are the five principles "upon which we have set the future direction of Cooperative Extension. It should be noted that the linchpin of this concept is the ability to retain salary savings" from the WTA to invest in information technology and training for Extension personnel. "We should emphasize that we plan no further personnel reductions beyond those already set in motion by the Workforce Transition Act," he said.