The first phrase of a famous quote by 1800s Scottish novelist Walter Scott starts with, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave,” and he could just as well have been talking about the seemingly never-ending reorganization of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension.
The Extension revamping, called the “nEXT Generation” plan by Extension officials, has been in the works for more than two years. The reorganization is in response to the 2015-2017 biennial budget that reduced Cooperative Extension’s budget by about $3.6 million per year. That represented about 8.3 percent of its ongoing state funding, and went into effect on July 1, 2015.
In February 2016, UW-Extension Chancellor Cathy Sandeen announced a lengthy list of priorities for reassigning Extension personnel and in some cases eliminating positions. The plan called for keeping Cooperative Extension in every county, but establishing multi-county areas that consolidate administration and educator positions. Unfortunately, the plan was primarily a top-down approach that didn’t give county Extension staff a whole lot of say in how the organization would be structured in the future.
It would have made a lot more sense to pull together Extension officials in a group of counties and say, “We have to cut the budget by 15 percent in your area — how would you shape Extension in your region so it is still effective?” The staff in those regions would have felt much more vested in the reorganization if they would have had some skin in the game, so to speak. That didn’t happen.
But there’s more. Extension faculty members — those with the highest levels of education and expertise — have been offered a “voluntary separation incentive package” to encourage them to retire early. Matt Hanson, UW-Extension southwest regional director, said the faculty members already met the qualifications to retire, but the separation package was “kind of an incentive to help them make that decision.”
When these faculty members retire or resign, they are likely to be replaced — if they are replaced — by academic staffers who do not have as much education or experience as those they will succeed. The incentive package message was subliminal but clear — faculty members cost more than academic staff, so we want the high-paid people to leave the system so they can be replaced by people who will be paid less.
That mind-set certainly isn’t unique to Cooperative Extension — it is happening in business everywhere. Some companies call it “right sizing,” or reducing their expenses to meet what might be declining revenue. Others are simply looking for ways to make more money.
But even so, it is somewhat unfortunate when it comes to Cooperative Extension. County residents can expect the level of expertise to be lower when they are looking for answers to whatever problem they might need help with. There will likely be someone in Extension who can answer the question, but that person might not be at the county level.
People might hear a lot more of “I’ll get back to you,” as academic staff members will have to ask someone else for an answer rather than having it himself or herself.
“The saddest thing about it is you’re removing faculty from counties — putting them in Madison or not having them at all,” one Extension employee who will be retiring early said of the approach. “I think it was good that the faculty were part of the community. They were more accessible that way.”
Hanson said he doesn’t know how many employees were offered an incentive to retire, but he said he received his first retirement letter on Aug. 18, effective in January 2018.
“I would think the months to come we’ll be seeing more of that,” he said.
Meanwhile, Extension officials are in the process of consolidating about 90 department head positions into 22 area Extension director positions. Hanson said they are working on finalizing position descriptions and hope to have most of those positions filled by early in 2018.
County officials will be happy to know they will still have some say in how Extension is structured in their counties. They will be able to express an opinion as to which programs should have priority and how state money allocated to the county’s Extension office will be spent.
The other good news is that state Extension officials say they do not intend to ask counties to contribute more money for Extension programming, which for the most part is currently funded at 60 percent by the state and 40 percent by the counties. The restructuring process has been long, complicated and cumbersome. It could have been completed faster and with less angst if county Extension officials were given more say about how the changes would take place.
The result will be a brain drain of significant proportions. Besides the faculty members who are being given incentives to retire, younger Extension staffers are leaving the organization for more stable and often higher paying jobs in the private sector.
If the process is ever completed, Cooperative Extension in Wisconsin will look a lot different than it did just a few years earlier.