ST. LOUIS • The University of Missouri has a plan that could bring back doubters.
That includes people with concerns about how the Columbia campus handled a series of protests more than two years ago. And the people from all parts of the state who think higher education institutions are out of touch.
It’s called MU Extension.
With an office in each of Missouri’s 114 counties, the land-grant arm of the university is about to get the biggest face-lift the program has seen in more than 50 years. It’s part of a larger effort to make the university more accessible — to bring the faculty, the research and the students to Missouri residents.
It’s also a reminder to Missourians that Extension is not just 4-H and master gardening classes.
Extension leaders are ready to show what else they have to offer, including financial planning classes, leadership training and dozens of other programs that vary by region.
In Ripley County, Extension is helping pilot a prevention program to address the opioid epidemic. In parts of southwest Missouri, it’s testing a recruitment and enrollment program for Mizzou. And statewide, Mizzou Athletics is tag-teaming with Extension to get signs and other swag into business and residential windows and cars.
Extension, by design, is a partnership between the University of Missouri and each county. The university employs most of the specialists and each county funds office space, among other things.
The mission dates to the 1800s when a federal act gave states plots of land in exchange for public colleges bringing agriculture, home economics, mechanical arts and other practical skills to the people. Schools with this mission — including Lincoln University in Jefferson City — get federal dollars.
There has always been a land-grant emphasis on agriculture, but with the onslaught of technology and the gradual growth of cities, the population’s needs and expectations changed.
“Our general mission is still the same,” said Jody Squires, associate regional director for Extension in the St. Louis city office. That mission boils down to improving quality of life. “The challenges change but the goal is always to provide resources to overcome those things, whatever they may be.”
‘New land grant’
Mizzou’s Vice Chancellor for Extension and Engagement Marshall Stewart explains the new effort this way: The university needed to “remember who brought us to the dance.”
He pointed to a possible disconnect between parts of the statewide population and the institution that was exacerbated with the protests in 2015.
It ties to a recurring theme from other Mizzou leaders these days: Let us show you our value.
Stewart spent most of his first 20 months on the job figuring out what this new era of the land grant looks like. In the process, he noticed three broad topics that people from the farthest corner of northwest Missouri to the tip of the Bootheel care about:
• Education and workforce development
• Health and access to health care
• The economy
By the end of 2018, each county office will have a specialist who will focus on one of those three issues.
“They’ll be uniquely positioned to focus on one of those top issues,” Stewart explained. “They’ll have content expertise but a focus deep in that county to see how that expertise can be helpful.”
If a county shows a need or interest in, for example, legal help for veterans, that Extension office can tap into the veterans’ law clinic at Mizzou’s Law School.
Professors across the institution are buying into the effort, which could turn into a faculty roadshow.
“Even if you never watch a football game or have a child who attends one of these campuses, you still benefit from the research coming out of these schools,” Squires said. “You cannot write off the university system because you don’t see the logo or you don’t have a degree. That’s part of what we’re trying to do now when we say ‘extension and engagement.’”
It’s all about working with county leaders and agencies to use expertise and university research to meet their needs.
St. Louis regional Extension offices are ahead of many of the changes that other county offices will see this year, Squires said. Though Extension operates out of Mizzou, the other University of Missouri campuses are partners. Squires said UMSL programs and researchers are heavily involved in area Extension efforts.
A new program for residents of north St. Louis and north St. Louis County is the type of work leaders say residents can expect from what Stewart and others are calling “the new land grant.”
The newly minted Neighborhood Leadership Fellows program gives 23 men and women a nine-month course on what it means to be a leader and how to affect policymaking, among other topics. The goal is for these fellows to land on commissions, boards and to possibly run for office.
The program and its precursor, the Neighborhood Leadership Academy, has inspired Umeme Houston, a St. Louis resident who is one of the fellows.
“Programs like this really do lead to empowering people in the community with knowledge that people in my neighborhood really don’t have unless they’re part of (something like this),” she said, referring to St. Louis’ Hyde Park neighborhood.
“If we take care of Missourians and they feel a strong relationship with us,” Stewart said, “they will take care of us. That’s not just in their money, it’s in their narrative and how they choose to send their sons and daughters to school here. We have to pay attention to that.”