They’re blowing some dust off of the University of Mo-Extension organization in Columbia in order to see more clearly how this land grant institution can not only remain relevant in a changing world, but also bolster overall University-System performance. Interim-Regional Director (East-Central) Matt Herring and members of the local Extension Council visited the Phelps County Commission on Thursday morning to introduce a newly proposed staffing plan. That may sound boring on the surface, but peer beyond the bureaucratic crust of the description and a world of possibility could open up according to Herring and Jo Britt-Rankin, associate dean in the College of Human Environmental Sciences, also in attendance.

Herring said the plan was born out of a needs assessment under the direction of Marshall Stewart, the new Extension vice chancellor. 42 “community conversations” reaching 1200 people were held around the state.
“From these meetings emerged three areas of concern, or opportunity, depending on how you look at it,” said Herring. “The first was economic opportunity, followed by healthy futures and educational access.”
According to Herring, people across the state also told them the University needed to be more responsive to local needs.
“They also told us they wanted us to continue to be that source of knowledge and information that’s unbiased, that they can trust,” he added.
Other wants were a “high-touch” engagement at the local level—directly interacting in the classroom, embracing [communication] technology to reach more people across the state and getting more involved in the community.
“Dr. Stewart envisions a position in each county tentatively called a “county engagement specialist,”” said Herring.
“They would be the face, or front-door of Extension and be very involved, knowing who the leaders are in the community and working with community groups to deepen our programming efforts.”
Secondly, there is talk of grouping counties by threes, called “trios.” One specialist would be based in one county, but the mix of skills collectively among the three specialists addresses each of the three primary needs, covering the trio of counties. One specialist might be an ag economics specialist or possibly a nutritionist or youth program organizer. Herring said Phelps County would be grouped with Crawford and Dent Counties. Each specialist plays a dual role covering community engagement as well as reaching out to three counties in their field of expertise.
Herring told the commissioners the other Extension positions such as agronomists, livestock and human development specialists would also be added to the mix, covering from six to 20 counties, depending on the specialty.

As far as the planning process was concerned, Associate Dean Jo Britt-Rankin reiterated things learned from the listening conversations—to focus on the local needs by being more responsive and to bring in the resources needed to help county officials tackle the three big challenges of rural economics, education and county health. She said to think of it as bringing “parts of the whole University System” to these local communities.
Herring said the plan is to bring in a youth specialist to work with Missouri S&T and the community to help fill some gaps with the STEM program.
For example, Britt-Rankin said the interest in robotics has grown the last three years across the state. She thinks Extension can help drive not only the interest, i.e. robotics programs for 4H, but also coordinate practical solutions to get students into the field of robotics.

The Rolla Daily News (RDN) asked if current budgets would support more programming across the state.
“The county commissions provide a local budget—the university provides salaries, generally through state and federal sources,” said Herring. “Obviously, we’d like to see those grow and with this staffing plan, maybe they will. We also have grants and contracts that help supplement and are becoming an increasing part of our budget.”
RDN also asked if the current role of Extension is understood well within the University System and if they will provide the resources needed to support this effort.
Dr. Marshall Stewart has come in as the right person at the right time,” said Britt-Rankin. “He’s a great visionary leader, and said, ‘It’s not that my position has a seat at the table, but I’m engaged in my seat.’  He has engaged all levels [within the University].”
Britt-Rankin shared an anecdote about University of Missouri President Mun Choi attending the Northeast Missouri Livestock Symposium in Kirksville, engaging in the event, even spending the night.
She said, “ People were asking [in wonder], ‘Whoever heard of a university president being engaged [like this] with Extension programming?’” “That’s a huge step.”
She added that Vice Chancellor Marshall has asked the big question. “How can we bring these non-Extension groups within the university to work more closely with Extension?”
“So, after 20-plus years, Extension is sitting at a different level within the [Missouri] University System,” said Britt-Rankin.
Herring added, “Extension is all about relationships and finding ways to build those relationships to make it easier to provide more programming—that’s what we need to be about.”