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“Teamwork the Key to Organizational Success”: Dwyer Reflects on Five Years Leading MSU Extension

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Russ White | MSU Today
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Kirk Heinze, left, and Jeff Dwyer (photo taken before pandemic)

Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) Director Jeff Dwyer is about to begin a long overdue and well-deserved sabbatical after an innovative and often challenging voyage at the helm of MSU Extension. He joins Kirk Heinze on MSU Today to reflect on his time leading MSUE. 

“It’s has been a great privilege for me to serve as the director of MSU Extension and the highlight of my professional career,” Dwyer says. 

“It's not very often you get to wake up every single day knowing that the organization you're a part of is impacting tens of thousands of people that day. And that's what it's like being the director of MSU Extension—working with over 600 people who are immensely talented, who are located across the state and who are doing great work every day. Whatever has been accomplished over the past five years has been a team effort in every sense of the word.” 

Dwyer talks about enhancing the agricultural and 4-H programs historically associated with Extension while also launching innovative healthcare and community development initiatives. He’s also proud of better connecting MSU Extension to the greater campus community and for ramping up assistance during such unanticipated events as the Flint water crisis and mounting depression among farm families.    

“One of the things we were able to do in Flint was remind people that MSU Extension is one of those rare organizations that doesn't have to go to a place like Flint to help when it's needed because we're already there. Given that we're there, we can help emergently and also grow our presence.  We've had Extension educators in Flint since 1907. When the Flint water crisis hit really right at the beginning of my tenure as director, we had in the neighborhood of 20 to 25 people working full-time in Flint and Genesee County. Now we have well over 40 working there full-time on a regular basis and that's because we were able to build on the great people that were already there helping Flint in this particular crisis and bring in other resources to grow what we're doing there.”

“About four years ago, we became very aware that there were some real struggles in rural America and on farms. And particularly, we were seeing, at least anecdotally, we thought an uptick in attempted suicides and completed suicides in farm communities and in farm families and that was a great concern. And we invested in our first experts in behavioral health at that time. We now have seven full time people whose principal focus is mental health or behavioral health. That's how big the need is.

“And we did get a lot of questions at first about why are we doing this? We should really be focusing on helping people grow things. But health really is in our domain. And today I can tell you that there's nobody that says that.

“Because of our behavioral health expertise that we now have in place, I contend that we could have a hundred experts in mental health and behavioral health. But without the more than century of experience and trust built by our agriculture experts in those communities, we would never have gotten in the door.”

Dwyer has also strongly emphasized diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at MSU Extension.

To that end, for example, he asked all service units in MSUE to examine their practices and seek ways to attract a more diverse workforce and a more diverse clientele.  In addition, MSUE had recently launched an initiative to better educate and guide staff with respect to interactions with LGBTQIA+ communities. 

“My own view as it relates to DEI is that it's not just an important thing to do for a whole list of reasons, but it's what will make us better as an organization. I have long viewed racism as not only a social and economic, but also a public health crisis. It's something we need to be thinking about literally every minute of every day.”

Dwyer also discusses some of the challenges facing his successor, Patrick Cudney.

“One challenge is going to be finding increased revenue streams, perhaps new revenue streams, but certainly growing the streams that we've introduced in recent years around contracts and grants, around new partnerships that didn't exist before and also philanthropy. Another challenge will be establishing new baseline contracts with all counties across the state. I anticipate that everything will go very well, but it's a challenging series of conversations. And Patrick would be the first to tell you, if you understand one county of the 83 in Michigan, you understand one county of 83. They're all different. There may be a few common elements and threads that run through them all, but they each have their unique needs and opportunities.”

How has the MSU Extension culture evolved during Dwyer’s tenure?

“One important outcome of more people knowing about the great work we do and the diversity of the work that we do is that our people are more regularly being made visible in their roles. And they’re proud to be part of MSU Extension and Michigan State University.”

Dwyer believes that efforts to ensure that campus and field staff are working in tandem and Extension educators are better able to collaborate across the University at  large have helped strengthen existing relationships and forged important new ones. 

And as for a few parting thoughts, Dwyer has this to say to the citizens of Michigan. 

“To those of you who have worked with us in the past and to those who haven't, reach out and go to our website, where we now have nearly a 1.5 million visitors per month.  Reach out through the university or in your communities because I have colleagues whom you're sitting next to in the church. I have colleagues whom you're standing six feet apart from in the grocery store line. And the great thing about my colleagues and MSU Extension is, if the individual educator you're interacting with doesn't have the expertise you need in that moment, it's important to remember that she or he has more than 600 colleagues all across the state to reach out to immediately.

“And, on top of that, Extension educators have more than 3,000 faculty and staff colleagues at Michigan State University to whom they can reach out as well. I sincerely hope that Michigan residents increasingly see MSU Extension as not just the window into solving their immediate problem or as a window into the larger framework of a great land grant university, but really as a window into solving some of the most important issues they're facing as individuals, families and communities.”

MSU Today airs every Sunday morning at 9:00 on 105.1 FM, AM 870, and wkar.org. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.

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