Address to UW Cooperative Extension staff

As prepared for delivery at the Cooperative Extension All Colleague Conference on Monday, April 30.

Thank you, Karl for that kind introduction. And thank you for inviting me and others from UW-Madison to be part of today’s conversation.

I want to thank everyone who’s been working on this transition. Provost Sarah Mangelsdorf and Casey Nagy have been heading up the team for UW-Madison, and you’ll have a chance to meet them and hear them talk about the transition plans in much greater detail later this morning.

I am primarily here this morning to say welcome. Or perhaps more appropriately, welcome back, since Cooperative Extension in Wisconsin started at UW-Madison. We were all a single organization for more than 50 years until the UW System was created and Cooperative Extension was pulled into a different organizational structure.

I’m particularly happy to be involved with this. I am the child of two extension agents. My mother was a Home Agent – a title that doesn’t exist any more – for a decade before she was married and had children. My dad spent his entire career in Extension. So I grew up understanding the value of Extension programs and the importance of the work you do for our state.

The history of Extension in Wisconsin is important. We were the first state to fund extension education and the leadership of UW-Madison was deeply committed to the idea of bringing education and services to rural areas of the state.

Charles Van Hise outlined his mission of taking education beyond the classroom in a 1905 speech to the Wisconsin Press Association. You’ve probably heard the most famous line of that speech. “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every family of the state.”

Once Van Hise committed to making practical, outcome-focused public outreach part of UW-Madison’s mission, Extension was the logical next step. Together, UW-Madison and Extension created a model for the nation, based on what we’ve now come to call the Wisconsin Idea.

The early work of our institution caught the attention of many people around the world. Educators traveled here to study our approach to outreach. In 1909, just as Wisconsin was getting extension education going, journalist Lincoln Steffens visited the campus. He came away impressed.

After his visit he wrote an article that called UW-Madison “the realization of the ideal of a university.” He wrote, “The disposition at Madison now is to learn and to teach anything that anybody knows or wishes to know.”

That early commitment to teaching anyone, anywhere started a long tradition of building partnerships to bring the university to every community and address issues facing our state.

It lives on today when Extension faculty and staff partner with teams from our campus on joint projects like the UW Environmental Resource Center to build community-based volunteer networks to collect critical data that informs campus research.

Your continued dedication to the Wisconsin Idea now generates over 1 million contacts a year, in programs that deliver educational resources to all 72 counties where people need it…on the farm, in their community centers, libraries, public gardens, and at their local schools.

You are an important link between the education and research that we do on our campus and on other campuses across the UW System and the lives of Wisconsin residents, no matter how far away they live from a campus.

Many of you have heard of Professor Stephen Babcock after whom Babcock Hall and Babcock Ice Cream is named. Long before his name was synonymous with your favorite ice cream, he was famous for inventing a butterfat test that transformed the dairy industry by ensuring that farmers were paid not by the quantity of the milk they sold, but by its quality.

But when Babcock sent his invention out to farmers, he found it wasn’t being used. Many farmers threw it on a shelf if they didn’t get it to work on the first try…they had too much to do to worry about some contraption from the university.

So Babcock sent people out to talk with the farmers and see why this device wasn’t working as well in the field as it did in the lab. The farmers educated Babcock, and Babcock made some tweaks to his invention to make it a little more user-friendly … and together they perfected the Babcock Butterfat Test, which became widely used across the U.S.

That was an early lesson in the value of having good people on the ground connecting the work in the lab to real-world applications. It’s a story repeated often in our shared history.

Alan Koepke is a farmer and a UW-Madison alum and his story sums up nicely the importance of UW-Madison and Extension still working together.

After getting his degree here at UW-Madison, Alan returned to the farm…working with our faculty and the local extension agent to send data from his farm to researchers on campus to improve his crop yields. His bottom line about why it worked so well? “We’ve learned a lot from the university, and they’ve been able to learn a lot from us.”

That is the type of partnership we are eager to continue building with you in communities across the state…with counties and tribes, with schools and businesses.

If we do this transition right, we will both end up as stronger institutions. I hope that a closer affiliation with UW-Madison will strengthen Cooperative Extension by making it easier to create connections between your work and the research and teaching that takes place across campus.

But I also hope that we on campus will be able to learn from you. You bring connections to communities across the state that can help inform us about crucial issues, and can better connect some of our researchers and teachers to what’s happening around the state.

For instance, you bring a network of 4-H clubs to our campus each year to learn about the college application process, financial aid, and career planning. And our renewed partnership can help our teams from admissions, financial aid and advising build on those trips to make sure 4-H chapters have all the information they need for their members.

We recently began a campus-wide initiative to increase outreach outside of the Dane County area. One of those early trips took me to a cranberry bog in Juneau County with our Dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Kate VandenBosch.

Extension and UW-Madison have a long partnership with cranberry growers…a fact highlighted by Bill Hatch, the owner of farm we toured. He noted that Wisconsin would not be the top cranberry producer in the world without the partnership among the growers, UW-Madison researchers, and the specialists at Extension.

We are continuing this type of outreach. Our Dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine, Mark Markel, was in the Sheboygan area last week showcasing the important work his team does supporting dairy and food production in our state, and learning from industry leaders about the challenges and opportunities they are facing.

And later this week Dean VandenBosch will be on the road again. This time to western Wisconsin to tour farms and meet with the team at Organic Valley to discuss our partnerships and the future of dairy in Wisconsin.

As I’ve travelled around the state in the past five years, I regularly hear about the great work that Extension is doing. I met with the Brown County Executive just last week and it was no surprise to hear he is excited about the work of the Brown County 4-H Youth Development Program.

And, like many others, he wants to keep young people in his community, bringing them back after they finish their schooling. Numerous counties have mentioned to our team the recent study released by the Applied Population Lab on examining what attracts young adults to certain rural communities. Local Extension educators helped guide this research to success by identifying local leaders in 12 different communities for our campus researchers.

These are just a few examples of the issues we can work on together as we help move Wisconsin forward.

I don’t want to underestimate the complexity of this transition. There are a lot of issues we need to work through. For better or worse, UW-Madison has some different policies and systems than Extension and Colleges. I know this is also coming on top of a major reorganization that you’ve all been dealing with. I suspect more than a few of you are pretty fed up with another set of organizational changes. I appreciate your patience. We will try to change only those things that we have to change, and leave you to do your work.

But once we get through the re-organization side of this, I am looking forward to being together. As many of you know, Cooperative Extension in almost every other state is located at the flagship university. So I’m very glad that the Board of Regents is placing Extension back with UW-Madison. I hope that you will hear from all of us at the university the same theme: welcome home.

I pledge that we will preserve what has made Cooperative Extension so valuable by honoring the work you do in Wisconsin communities and maintaining the quality programming you are known for across our state.

I look forward to working with you as we both move into this new chapter in our shared history. Thank you, and I’ll be happy to take your questions.