UW-Extension leaders review elements of restructuring

​Ray Mueller


What's in store for the University of Wisconsin Extension as its begins its next-generation reorganization that was forced by the state legislature's $250 million cut in funding for the university system in its current biennium budget?

Addressing that question at the recent farm management update for ag professionals sponsored by Extension Service offices in east central counties were the entity's provost and vice chancellor Aaron Brower and interim dean and director Karl Martin. Both praised the efforts and contributions of departing dean Rick Klemme, whose post Martin will be taking Nov. 1.

Aaron Brower

Reorganization background

The annual state budget cut of $125 million, which began July 1, 2015, shaved $5.2 million per year from the Extension Service's four divisions with the Cooperative Extension, which is a joint federal, state and county venture, Brower pointed out. The Cooperative absorbed $3.6 million of that cut while the remaining portions were reductions to public broadcasting, business development and continuing education, which offers independent online learning, on-campus courses and the awarding of degrees.

This latest reduction was part of a longer term trend affecting the state's university system, Brower said. He noted that the university is involved in the operation of 26 installations in the state.

As a result of the funding cutback in the current biennium, the Extension Service was virtually forced to consider a restructuring on how it provides its services, Brower stated. The first formal reaction was a draft report issued in December of 2015 — a document that prompted a major feedback from constituents and parties being affected, which led to a much shorter Feb. 10, 2016 chancellor's memo that no longer contained ideas that would prove to be unworkable.

Input sessions held in more than 50 Wisconsin counties prompted a public outpouring touting the value of the Extension Service, Brower reported. Regarding the restructuring, he pledged that an Extension Service presence would remain in every county, but administration would be handled in multi-county units.

At the moment, there are 19 work groups discussing and developing proposals for the upcoming reorganization, Martin said. Three work groups are considering the restructuring format for which a report on the options is due by February. A decision on the options is due by June of 2017 to set the stage for implementation of the plan later in 2017 and into 2018, Brower said.

Karl Martin

Preliminary ideas

To address the funding challenge, which is likely to continue, Brower said it is necessary to become more aggressive in seeking revenue that can be reinvested in the Extension Service — an approach he said public broadcasting is already pursuing fairly successfully. For the Cooperative Extension, that effort would be devoted mainly to increasing the $20 to $35 million currently being obtained annually from federal grants and contracts.

A way to make better use of existing funds is to increase the reliance on the digital media and the Internet, Brower advised. He noted, however, that this isn't practical today in the dozens of counties in the central, western and northern Wisconsin which do not have broadband access.

Contrary to some expressed concerns, Brower pledged that funds will not shifted from rural to urban services, that the 4-H program will be preserved and that most of the changes will occur in the administrative sphere rather than in programs or services.

Fundamental standards

One of the basic goals in the restructuring is to protect the “Wisconsin Idea,” which endeavors to provide the university's services everywhere in state and for which Wisconsin ranks at the top, along with California, for the quality and extent of its Extension Service program, Martin said. He mentioned recent contacts with the Wisconsin Ag Coalition, economic development organizations and entities in the forestry industry as examples of this.

Building on existing partnerships and creating new ones will be a continuing goal, Martin stated. He promised that research for agricultural production, youth services, protection of natural resources and economic development would remain on the Extension Service's agenda.

Continuing challenges

Martin acknowledged that recruiting and retaining a top quality Extension Service staff will be difficult if the salaries are not competitive in the market. He was responding to a comment by Cleveland State Bank agricultural loan officer Cari Sabel that “good people will be lost” if they are not paid properly.

Early in its second century of existence, it is not out of line for the Cooperative Extension to consider some fundamental changes in its operation, Martin suggested. He noted that markets change and that revisions are common in the private business sector.

The Extension Service's restructuring is not being handled as top-down process, Martin said. He is confident that the changes will involve the greater use of digital tools; allow flexibility on programs and use of funds; and reduce the overall administrative costs