Dave, tell us more about where you're from.
I was born and raised in Maryville, Tennessee. From fifth through ninth grades, I lived in northern New Jersey, and then we moved back to Maryville. I attended Westminster College, near Pittsburgh. It changed my life in so many ways. For starters, I met my wife Mary Lynn there; we married the week after I graduated.
I also found my life's work there. There was a political science professor named Dale Hess, who became my mentor and friend. I went on to earn an MA in political science from Ohio State and was on track to do my Ph.D. there. Midway through the program, I decided it wasn't for me. I ended up at the University of Oregon. I studied community organizing, interviewing 18 community organizers at different stages in their lives. The question was: What sustains political commitment over time?
After a brief stint at San Jose State, I got a job at Mercer University in Atlanta. Sadly, the college was disbanded a few years later. That put us on the road to look for different opportunities. We ended up in Davis. After a semester as a “freeway flyer” teaching at three different community colleges, I showed up, hat in hand, on what became a series of wonderful opportunities at UC Davis.
What has your career trajectory been at UC?
I started teaching political science at UC Davis in the Fall of 1990. I knew Gail Feenstra, and she told me that SAREP was looking for an economic and public policy analyst. I told her, “I don't know anything about agricultural policy.” I didn't feel especially well qualified, but was asked, “Do you know a good idea when you see one?” I said, “I think so” and got the job.
I worked at SAREP and for the Political Science department. In 1996, Al Sokolow, Jim Grieshop, and Joan Wright put together a proposal to ANR Associate Vice President Henry Vaux to create the California Communities Program. I was tapped as its inaugural (and only) director. In 2000, a community development specialist position opened at UC Davis. I've been in that role for 19 years.
As a community development specialist, it was about finding partners who knew things I knew nothing about. I was fortunate to have had many wonderful individuals and groups to collaborate with over the course of my career, both within and outside of Extension.
I also served as the Strategic Initiative Leader for Healthy Families and Communities for almost four years, succeeding Sharon Junge and preceding Keith Nathaniel. I left that role when I started as the Associate Dean for Social and Human Sciences in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in 2014.
Which accomplishments are you most proud of?
Pride doesn't come easily to good Calvinist Presbyterians! But I am proud to have done some form of specialist work in 38 of California's 58 counties. I spent a lot of time out in counties working with local advisors on projects. That work attempted to reflect the best intention of our system to bring campus and community together, to connect them, and to make sure learning is going both directions. Not just campus to community, but also community to campus.
I'm proud that the California Communities Program had a series of yearly conferences that highlighted critical topics in community development. Those conferences were good at including both internal and external audiences, connecting the university with stakeholders and the community.
My dad was a coach. In our family, it was all about the team. I pride myself on being a good team player. That's sometimes meant leading, and other times being a pinch hitter or utility infielder, or sometimes it's just lugging the bats back to the car. I've tried to find teams that matter and contribute in whatever way I can to their work.
What about memorable research?
I was fortunate to have had articles voted best in a journal for a particular year on three occasions. The most impactful one was a 2012 piece called “What works is workarounds,” which drew on more than 2,000 interviews I conducted with other team members in local communities throughout California. But the first one was the most interesting story.
Joan Wright and I were working in Humboldt County with Deb Giraud. We provided technical assistance to nine nonprofit groups and helped them develop outcome assessment plans for their own organization. Simultaneously, we did surveys and focus groups with foundations and agencies in the community that were funding the nonprofits. What was it they wanted to know? The funny thing was what came out on the other end: the old tried-and-true metrics, like the number of jobs created and wage levels of those jobs. None of the fancier new indicators mattered to funders.
Joan and I basically wrote the article – “Outcomes Assessment and the Paradox of Accountability” – as we drove five hours from Arcata back to Davis after our last trip up there. The article sort of wrote itself and won an award. It was the easiest writing experience I've ever had.
“As retirement has grown near, my main emotion has been gratitude.
UC has given me so many wonderful opportunities
that I would never have dreamed up myself."
What would you want to tell advisors and others beginning their career with UC?
I would say to find the people in the organization that you trust and who embody some kind of wisdom and experience that you value. Don't be afraid to call on them for advice and assistance.
The other thing is not to be afraid to make the job what you think it needs to be. The reality is that at its best Extension is a living organization, an adaptive organization, a responsive organization. It has to be willing to try new things, be new things, while holding on to the best of our land grant tradition. Often when people are starting out – particularly with our merit and promotion processes and other kinds of bureaucratic processes – there's a natural push towards meeting organizational expectations. That's important, but it's not the heart of the work and it's not what is going to keep you excited and passionate about the work. It's not what will keep you connected with the community and with what's on the minds of locals. I think it's important to keep focused on the passions that drew you to the work in the first place.
Any other takeaways?
I'm struck by the contradictions of the time we're in. In some ways, an organization like Cooperative Extension is absolutely more critical, more vital, and has more to contribute to public life than ever before. If there's anything missing in our public life, it is institutions that can bring people together, solve problems, realize dreams, and do so in a way where evidence, reason, and thoughtful discussion are the modus operandi, and not just passion and tribalism. We need this desperately. At its best, Extension does this and yet, here we are in an organization that has seen a decades-long funding decline, and in the eyes of some is becoming less and less relevant.
Part of the land grant mission, and the vitality of that, is to promote leadership and active citizenship in communities, and to promote connections between university and community. We live in a culture that has grown increasingly anti-intellectual. All things university-related have come to be considered ivory tower: disconnected, elite self-interested. We need to take seriously that critique, but it's not all we are, or all that we should be or could be. Extension at its best represents what that alternative can look like.
What are your hopes for retirement?
Mary Lynn and I are moving to Fort Collins, Colorado, to be closer to our son, daughter-in-law and our new grandson, Pax. I hope to do more writing, including potentially writing a book. I'm looking forward to joining a new church with my wife where she doesn't have to be the pastor; that will be a new experience for us. I'll certainly get involved in the civic life of Fort Collins in whatever ways make sense. No big travel plans for me: I'm a homebody; been there and done that. However, I would like to explore Colorado when it doesn't interfere with golf!