Dickey Reflects on Years as Dean of Extension

By Brooke Talbott

"Within extension administration, you do a lot of what I would say is 'seed planting,'" said Elbert Dickey, "and the really cool thing is when you see those seeds blossom."

Dickey retired June 30, 2012 after 11 years as dean and director of University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. "Over the course of time," Dickey said, "I've planted some seeds and now they're blossoming and they're going to result in a great harvest."

Dickey was with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for 34 years, starting in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering in 1978 with an academic research focus on conservation tillage. Dickey was promoted to professor in 1987. He served as assistant dean of extension from 1991 to 1998 and as associate dean of extension from 1998 to 1999.

Extension houses the 4-H program, which has experienced great success under the leadership of Dickey and of Beth Birnstihl, who retired June 30 as associate dean of extension and 4-H program administrator. Of the 12 states that make up the North-Central Region, Nebraska is the leader in age-eligible youth engaged in 4-H programs. One out of three young people in Nebraska are engaged in some form of 4-H, he said.

Nebraska also leads the region in curriculum development and in national awards and recognition, he said, adding that the state also is in the upper quadrant in terms of grant monies received.

Dickey reflected on two of "the best highs" of his career.

One was at an extension program in Kearney, Nebraska. Dickey was scheduled to speak to an audience and arrived late, then there were issues with the microphone. Dickey said when the microphone started working, "I said something like: 'I've got fifteen minutes to tell you everything I know.'" He said, "to this day, I don't quite understand the chemistry that made it happen," but from that comment, "I had the audience in the palm of my hand... That was one of the coolest teaching experiences I've ever had."

The other memorable moment was when Dickey got a call from the United States Department of Agriculture in 2007, inviting him to be the extension and education advisor. "I wasn't anticipating that call. I was totally unprepared and I had to just stand there in a daze," he said. After encouragement from his associate dean at the time, Dickey accepted the two-year assignment and switched from working full-time in Nebraska to an assignment in which he spent two weeks in Washington, D.C. and two weeks in Nebraska.

"For me," Dickey said, "extension is my farming." Since he was young, Dickey has had an interest in farming. "When I was growing up," he said, "I really wanted to farm." But Dickey and his brothers were urged by his parents to attend college instead, he said.

When Dickey was an extension specialist, he said it was "a real treat" to work with farmers and understand more about farming in Nebraska. "I like the connection to the farm community," he said. "For me, it's been a continual evolution of my appreciation of the food production systems and the people that work in it."

"It has really been an honor to work at Nebraska, both as a specialist and then in extension administration. We have a lot of really good faculty and staff," Dickey said.

When asked about his retirement plans, Dickey replied: "One of the things I've shared with a few people is: even though I'm from Illinois, my wife is from Illinois, our retirement home is going to be in Nebraska." He plans to visit all of the United States National Parks from coast to coast, including Denali National Park in Alaska and Acadia National Park in Maine. Dickey also would like to return to Ireland and Scotland, the countries of his heritage.

Extension program is mission critical for the future

If you looked at extension in 1950, the focus was mainly on agriculture, Dickey said. "We've changed and we've grown." Extension not only addresses crop, livestock and soil issues; it addresses issues of water, nutrition, and child, youth, and family as well as issues related to community. "We're talking about science, we're talking about citizenship, we're talking about wellbeing," Dickey said.

One of the newer areas extension is focusing on are the STEM science areas (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Extension educators and specialists are bringing STEM education to young people through robotics lessons in 4-H after-school programs.

"The opportunities for educational programs with young people, in my opinion, is just really unfolding," he said. "I think it's important for us to reach out to all young people and give them the opportunities that we can provide through the landgrant base of our research...the better care you can give to young people, the better opportunities they will have throughout the rest of their lives."

Extension embraces technology

Dickey said in today's world, with 24/7 access to the Internet, it is critical that extension educators and specialists use technology and involve the computer in some way. Developing educational programs is not "one size fits all," he said, it's about customizing the programs to best meet the audience's needs. "We need to be thinking about the technology that we have access to," Dickey said. "How can we best use that in an educational setting and how can the client get the most out of the information we have in an environment that's available to them on their timeframe."

To keep up with rapid technological changes, extension has developed educational iPad applications to better serve clients. In addition, most printed circulars and publications are offered electronically. Numerous past publications and circulars have been submitted to online databases as well, he said.

Despite the convenience technology offers to clients, "the in-person meeting is still pretty critical," Dickey said. It allows one to get a better understanding of what a community issue might be, he said. The advice he gives for adopting rapidly-changing technology is: "Be nimble, be flexible and try to keep in front of the curve."

Land-grant mission

At the heart of extension is the history of the land-grant universities: make higher education available to everyone. "The land-grant," Dickey said, "created these wonderful colleges and universities across the country to give every person an opportunity to have higher education."

Signed by Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War, the Morrill Act of 1862 established land-grant universities in the U.S. which were devoted to advancing agriculture and the technical sciences. The legislation made higher education available to every person instead of only to the wealthy.

However, a great deal of the research done by the land-grant universities was confined to the students within the university, Dickey said. In the late 1800s, outreach programs began to develop and impact rural Nebraska, he said. The Smith Lever Act was passed in 1914 to formally establish the Cooperative Extension Service, a partnership between land grant universities and the United States Department of Agriculture.

Because of the partnership created by the Smith Lever Act, extension programs in Nebraska and elsewhere are directly connected to a research base. Having a connection to a research base, Dickey said, puts the community in a better position to address issues like food scarcity. As Nebraskans think about helping feed 9 billion people by the year 2050, he said, the strong connection to research places the people in a community in a better place to enhance production in a way that protects the environment.

Dickey said developing educational programs is really a synergistic loop of partnerships between the scientific research experts at the university, the extension educators and specialists, and the people in the communities. "It's kind of like we have the cake," Dickey said, "but with partners' resources, we can put icing on the cake."

What is extension? What is the land-grant mission?

What services does extension provide? In the words of recently-retired Dean and Director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Cooperative Extension Division, Elbert Dickey: "We teach!"

Appropriately named, extension is an extension of university research and academic programs. Extension educators and specialists are a communication linkage between scientists and nonscientists. Dickey said extension programs engage people outside the university in relevant discussions about Nebraska issues by translating scientific research into ways that can benefit their social, environmental and/or economic well-being.

Extension has two really important roles, Dickey said. The first is to listen to the needs of people within the community and share those needs with colleagues and research entities within the university. The second is to translate knowledge from the formal research setting and develop educational programs that offer practical solutions to satisfy the community's needs.

"Part of extension's role is to help give individuals, families and communities information and tools to help them become better decision makers on issues across the country," Dickey said. Extension educators and specialists are essentially the liaisons between researchers, producers and consumers, he added.


The Morrill Act of 1862


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