- Author: Wendy Powers
Last week I mentioned that I am spending my long weekend attending a conference in New Orleans. The theme of the meeting is Resilience: Turning Challenges into Opportunities. Rebecca Blank, Chancellor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, gave the keynote address. She talked about the importance of the public university in today's world, citing the data about the increase in the difference in lifetime income based on the level of education and how that difference has drastically increased since the 1970's and continues to do so. Despite the data, the public university is under heavy scrutiny and the relevance is questioned. Chancellor Blank stressed the importance in perseverance and the need to meet students where they are, making it easy to attend such that the composition of, particularly the land-grant institution, reflects the demographics of the population. She talked about UW-M's new commitment to make it easy for those less fortunate to attend UW-M: if a student's family annual income is less than $56,000 and the student meets the criteria for enrollment, the campus guarantees that student sufficient scholarships, loans, and grants to attend. No complex formula, no strings.
A panel discussion followed Chancellor Blank's address. On the topic of the public research university, the President of the University of Houston stated that research is what defines us but we need to remain true to our core mission (training students). If we focus on the core we will quickly determine that there are many ways to achieve the mission; we don't have to stick to what we have always done and how we have always done it. She gave as an example of an innovative solution, that when hurricane Harvey hit at the start of the semester, the leadership team quickly realized that the university was vulnerable to losing many of its students so they made a decision that they would accommodate students however necessary to avoid dropouts. This included personal phone calls to work with the students to address the student's needs. The result was that the University of Houston did not see a single student drop out, despite the destruction caused in the region. Quite an impressive statistic!
One of the comments made was that “Excellence and diversity are not mutually exclusive”. I don't recall who made that statement but I believe it was the President of Montana State University. I agree completely and I think our Extension programs demonstrate so.
In general, while the conversations on Sunday seemed very focused on students, the essence of the conversations were very much applicable to Extension – the whole idea that the system is underfunded and perhaps even threatened, the idea that Extension needs to change how it achieves its core mission in order to remain relevant to the clientele who change each generation, and the sense that Extension is needed more than ever before.
None of this is new to anyone reading this. When I went back to my room this evening I started to listen to a TED talk and the add that ran before the talk included a statement that may be a new concept to many, and one that we really need to think about: “Be willing to disrupt your traditional model because if you don't, someone else will”.