The decision to consolidate the University’s Extension Service’s county offices into regional centers signals the beginning of a new relationship between the University and Minnesota’s communities. While the consolidation plan has some meritorious ideas, the closure of county Extension offices will fray connections between the University and many outstate communities.
With its inclusion in the Morrill Act of 1862, the University became a land-grant institution. In exchange for this designation, the University took on the responsibility of disseminating beneficial research throughout Minnesota. Until now this responsibility included placing a University Extension agent in each Minnesota county, a system which facilitated personal relationships between University employees knowledgeable in the latest agricultural science and rural families. But the University’s current economic plight has led it to decide it was no longer economical to have Extension employees in each county.
Many in the Extension Service believe the consolidation of county offices into regional centers is desirable for reasons other than saving money. Instead of placing a jack-of-all-trades employee in each county, the regional centers will provide a suite of specialists accessible to everyone in the center’s region. In addition, the reconstructed Extension Service gives counties the option of funding the continuation of county-level Extension offices and services.
However, reconstruction is not without drawbacks. Rather than providing face-to-face services, Extension services are more likely to be provided in the future via the Internet or phone. The quality and volume of communication between the University and Minnesota communities will decrease. Some outstaters are also worried consolidation will facilitate mission creep in the Extension Service. For these critics, the regional centers’ ability to offer a suite of services will distract the Extension Service from its core agricultural mission.
Undoubtedly, the Extension Service is becoming less personal. For those outstate Minnesotans who prefer face-to-face contact, the University will become less relevant. The continuation of a vibrant Extension Service will depend on the University and outstaters learning how to work together over longer and more impersonal distances.