I’ve been known for invoking some strange analogies in the course of my professional career, but I’ve been an eccentric so long that I’m no longer bothered by the stigma attached to it.
Every now and then, someone, usually associated with the media, will ask me to explain how Extension relates to the overall land-grant university. I urge them to think of an old British dominion — an observation that typically elicits a blank stare or, in the case of a phone conversation, a long pause.
Actually, the analogy is a valid one. Think about Australia in the early 20th century, years before it went through its nation-defining experiences of World Wars I and II. The nation was unmistakably British in many ways. Australians sang God Save the King, flew the Union Jack and, in their free time, recreated much like Britons, playing cricket or rugby, or, at least, rooting for people who did.
At the same time, though, there were things about Australia that were recognizably Australian — aboriginal culture, the Botany Bay experience, Koala bears, Kangaroos and Australian Rules football, to name only a few.
An Extension Analogy
A similar kind of distinction applies to Extension programs. In many ways, the Cooperative Extension concept preceded land-grant universities. Farmers were undertaking Extension-type outreach efforts decades before anyone even thought of developing land-grant institutions as a means of providing formal agricultural and mechanical training to common folk.
Moreover, there was nothing inevitable about the formal institutional tie that currently exists between state Extension programs and their land-grant counterparts.
A Cobbled Identity
The practice of affiliating Extension programs with land-grant universities was based on an informal agreement cobbled together by Seaman Knapp, generally recognized as the father of Cooperative Extension work, and C.C. Thach of Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University). And underscoring just how informal this agreement was, it dealt with the comparatively banal question of how Extension work through the public schools would be carried out jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and API. Yet, without this agreement, it’s possible the tie between state Extension programs and their land-grant counterparts would have been far less formal — which explains why even today Cooperative Extension administrators typically follow a separate reporting line than their counterparts in other university divisions.
This is an especially important distinction in Alabama, where two schools with deep agricultural and mechanical institutional roots — Auburn and Tuskegee universities —arguably can claim equal credit for pioneering the Extension mission, not only in Alabama but throughout the nation.
But I think it’s a distinction that should be borne in mind by Extension professionals all over the country. Never forget that the Cooperative Extension mission is as much a social movement with a unique history of its own as it is a university-affiliated outreach program.