Volume 13, Number 5 October 21, 2005

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Debate over Extension & Outreach heats up

By Lawrence McMahen

The long-simmering debate over the future of the Extension Division burst into the open in recent days, as some from that Division charged that the University’s rush toward a new Outreach & Engagement initiative risks losing the valuable functions historically performed by Extension.

But those pushing for the broader Outreach & Engagement view say much of the University’s current interaction with the community already occurs outside of the Extension Division – and they want to find ways to support a more aggressive stance for all parts of the U of S to take their teaching and research activities out to the community.

And the administration says the question of the future structure of the Extension Division is a separate, narrower issue.

At two forums – a Faculty Association-sponsored Oct. 12 critique of the administration’s handling of Extension Division, and an administration-sponsored Oct. 18 town-hall on Outreach & Engagement – the positions were voiced between Extension defenders and those in faculty and administration who want the U of S to adopt the larger view that all colleges and departments must interact with the public.

At the Oct. 12 public meeting, Extension Division faculty members told about 40 people that the administration’s push for Outreach & Engagement has been hasty and ill-conceived.

Former Extension dean Gordon Thompson said the Outreach & Engagement initiative says no unit will lead on co-ordinating things. Yet he says authorities on the issue and most U.S. universities say it’s crucial there be a central unit supporting and co-ordinating the outreach function.

Extension Credit Studies Director Bob Cram said five reviews of U of S Extension in the past 35 years have supported the Division. Cram said the new push for major changes to Extension Division, in tandem with the call for Outreach & Engagement, come without a current review of the Division. He said efforts by extension faculty and staff to provide information to administration have been rebuffed. He said the Division’s staff feels shut out of the process, even though they were promised they would be involved.

Cram added that the U of S push for a cost-recovery Continuing Education function, focused on credit programs is contrary to what goes on at almost all Canadian universities, and won’t work. He said Extension staff want to be part of the process and help to design a model that will work for the U of S.

At the Oct. 18 town-hall session, President Peter MacKinnon, Institutional Planning Director Pauline Melis, and Council Planning Committee member Brett Fairbairn led an explanation of the goals of the Outreach and Engagement initiative.

Melis said the second draft of the Outreach & Engagement Foundational Document has been widely circulated and there has been a lot of opportunity for feedback. After an Oct. 21 deadline, the document will again be revised to reflect people’s input, she said, and a third draft of the document will be circulated for consideration and, she hopes, approval.

Melis and Fairbairn said the O&E priorities include service-learning, community-university research partnerships, technology transfer, promoting lifelong learning, and international outreach.

Fairbairn said O&E isn’t the same as Extension – it is giving students and faculty “opportunities to bridge from the classroom to the community”. He said the challenge facing promoters of O&E now is to show examples of the valuable applications there can be for faculty.

He said faculty who are “engaged” with the community don’t want a central unit to direct their activity – they want support from the University. So, he sees that the Vice-President of Research office would support “engaged research”, the New Learning Centre would support “engaged teaching”, and so on, across the University.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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