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A Conversation with Caroline Crocoll Henney

By Katie Baildon
  • Cornell Cooperative Extension
What trends are we seeing in Extension work nationally and how are state Extension systems rising to meet needs highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic? Dr. Caroline Crocoll Henney, executive director of the national Cooperative Extension System, joins the Extension Out Loud podcast to discuss these questions and the history of the Cooperative Extension System in the latest episode of Cornell Cooperative Extension’s “Leading through Extension” podcast series. 

Cooperative Extension systems leverage resources, diverse funding streams, and Land-Grant University knowledge to help address the most pressing societal needs. This approach is not new but the needs and priorities of communities are constantly shifting.  

Today, Henney sees Extension systems working to improve health care and broadband access in response to the pandemic. She also sees more programming focused on climate resiliency and adapting to the local impacts of climate change.  

Despite the gravity of the challenges that communities across the nation are facing, Henney is encouraged by Extension’s ability to respond, "I see the [Cooperative Extension] system coming together to address these incredible challenges the nation is facing, I see that we are more valued, I think, than we have ever been." 

"I see the [Cooperative Extension] system coming together to address these incredible challenges the nation is facing, I see that we are more valued, I think, than we have ever been." 

Henney, a native of Western New York, is the executive director of the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy and works closely with CCE’s director Christopher B. Watkins who serves as chair of the committee. She also serves as assistant vice president of the Office of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Programs at the Association of Public Land-grant Universities.

This conversation with Henney is the sixth episode of the latest “Extension Out Loud” series, “Leading Through Extension,” which features key CCE voices discussing their approaches to extension work and how history – and this past tumultuous year — are shaping the organization’s path forward.  

Listen on:

PAUL TREADWELL: Welcome to Extension Out Loud, a podcast from Cornell Cooperative Extension. I'm Paul Treadwell.

KATIE BAILDON: And I'm Katie Baildon.

PAUL TREADWELL: Hey, Katie. Who are we talking to for this episode?

KATIE BAILDON: Yeah. So we're talking to Caroline Henney. And she is Executive Director of the Cooperative Extension System and the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, and she's also the Assistant Vice President of the Office of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Programs at the Association of Public Land Grant Universities. And she's from Western New York.

PAUL TREADWELL: So this is a higher-level overview of the work of Extension from Caroline. And it is part of our Leading Through Extension series. This is the sixth episode in that series. And we thought it'd be time to zoom up a little bit and look at what the work of Extension is, and how Cornell Cooperative Extension sort of fits into this large national system.

KATIE BAILDON: Yeah, absolutely. So we talk about how Extension work is driven by societal changes. And she talks about some examples of what those changes have been, an Extension nationally, and how they've played out at the local level across the country.

PAUL TREADWELL: And it was really great that she was able to make time to sit down with us. I hope you enjoy this episode.

CAROLINE HENNEY: Hello, everyone. I'm Caroline Crocoll Henney. I am the Executive Director of the Cooperative Extension System, as well as the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy. I am based in Washington, D.C. at the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities.

PAUL TREADWELL: So what does that actually mean, Caroline? What does-- what do you do? And how long has this association been around? And does it connect every Extension system across the country?

CAROLINE HENNEY: This has been around for decades, actually, Previously known as NASULAC, the National Association of Land Grant Universities. So I've actually been working with Extensions since 1994. I started my career at Texas A&M University, and have had the opportunity to work at the county, state, and federal level. I am coming to this position that I'm currently in-- I started in June of 2020 after 17 years at USDA, at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture working with Extension programs.

KATIE BAILDON: Can you share with us how a state Extension system might engage or what the relationship is between the national Extension efforts and a state Extension system?

CAROLINE HENNEY: So it's really an interesting partnership. We have all of these state Extension services. We have 76 directors and administrators at land grant universities across the country. But we come together as a Cooperative Extension system to address issues that impact everyone across the nation.

And it's such a unique system. I've heard it said that Extension is the envy of the world. And truly, there are so many countries who are interested in the Extension model. But we do work together on a variety of issues with the Extension committee on organization and policy, supporting those national-level efforts, bringing in resources and funding to assist in these efforts.

PAUL TREADWELL: So, can I ask you a question about HBCUs?


PAUL TREADWELL: Can you tell us what HBCUs are and how they are related to the Extension system? Are they integral to it? Is it a separate sort of system? And just give us a little context for that?

CAROLINE HENNEY: Absolutely. So there's various acts or legislation that contributed to the development of the Land Grant University system. We had legislation through the first Morrill Act in 1852 that created a system of land grant universities across the United States. Then we had the 1890 legislation, which was the second Morrill Act that created the Historically Black Colleges and Land Grant Universities.

There are currently 18 of those in our system, including Tuskegee. So they are a part of the Land Grant University system. And then in 1994 we brought in 30 plus natives colleges and institutions to be a part of the Land Grant System. Each of those different groups of Land Grant Universities have a mission to look at the research that's coming out of the universities to be translated through Extension for local community consumption. And so the 1890s, or the Historically Black Colleges and Universities are an integral part of the Extension Service within this huge system.

KATIE BAILDON: Over time, as we've been kind of doing our research for this series, where we're talking to a bunch of different leaders about what Extension is from their perspective, we've heard a lot of different definitions. So I'm curious from your perspective, how have you seen definitions of Extension nationally sort of shift and change over time?

CAROLINE HENNEY: I'm such an advocate of history, and particularly, in the history of Extension. Even before 1914, which is where Extension, through legislation, became a formalized concept-- even before that, there was a great deal of demonstration-type projects reaching out to people in very isolated communities to help with family life, to help with resources, with agricultural yields. And so Extension, of course, is extending the universities to communities. But much of what you see in terms of the evolution of Extension is driven by societal change or societal need.

Having formed in 1914, then you see the advent of world wars and the Great Depression and all kinds of needs related to civil discourse in the Civil Rights movement. And over time, you see Extension adapting to and evolving to meet needs within the nation related to food, agriculture, natural resources, and human sciences. That adaptation occurs and evolution at the local level in counties, parishes, burrows, in states, in regions of the country based on need. One region may be different from another. Or nationally, and even now, a great international need for the work of Extension. So it's very much driven by societal events, changes that we're seeing in the economy, and Extension rising to meet those needs over time.

KATIE BAILDON: Are there any particular needs that you have noticed over time that have been influential on the changes to local programming?

CAROLINE HENNEY: First and foremost, in all of our minds I think, is the impact that COVID-19 has had across the globe. And it really is driving innovation in terms of how Extension meets the needs of people and communities, how we reach people where they are, how we help people in terms of health access. But we're also seeing a lot of opportunities within the climate resiliency adaptation to issues. We're seeing a lot of opportunity in terms of broadband access and digital skills.

One of the things that the pandemic has shown us is that so many people across the nation are not able to access resources because they don't have access to broadband or the bandwidth, or even necessarily if they do, they don't have the digital skills to engage with that, much related to health, much related to workforce and economic development. We're seeing all of those kinds of things coming to greater light because of what we've experienced with the pandemic.

PAUL TREADWELL: The issue of broadband and digital skills, digital inclusion is something that, given my background and where I come from, is really fascinating to me. And I think Extension could be playing a very strong role in, especially, issues of digital literacy education. And how do you see that playing out? When we discover a need, how does that need get expressed in Extension programming?

CAROLINE HENNEY: This is one area that I'm really rather passionate about. I'm actually so pleased to be on this podcast today because I grew up in Chautauqua County, in Dunkirk, New York, right on Lake Erie. And to a great extent, that area of Western New York is rural. There are access issues in terms of broadband. And so it's really something that I can see playing out in my own life.

We have national groups that are working on both the infrastructure side of broadband access as well as the engagement, the opportunity. One of the partnerships that we're engaged in right now is led by Land O'Lakes. And they have this American Connection Project where they are gathering all kinds of groups and organizations together to look at how to provide, at least on a temporary basis, a hotspots and access to broadband in really difficult to reach areas-- rural areas, geographically isolated areas. And so Extension has really risen to that. Half of the sites that have been mapped for broadband access are actually provided by Extension.

So the Extension office in rural communities, they will open up hotspots for school students or college students or community members to be able to access the internet. The issue is, their bandwidth in the Extension offices is not strong enough to support the work that they do. So we definitely are rising to that. There's a lot of partnerships that have taken place. There are a lot of opportunities within new legislation around infrastructure. So we're really, especially ECOP, the group that I'm executive director for, are stepping in to be a part of those conversations.

KATIE BAILDON: And then thinking about health access, which you also mentioned, in New York, we've been having a lot of conversations about our role in community health programming and supporting the health of our communities. So I'm wondering if you're seeing an expansion or a change in the way that people are thinking about how Extension works with health care and with health access in communities.

CAROLINE HENNEY: The way I look at this area is health is an umbrella. Everything that we do in Extension affects some aspect of human n of community health, of the health and well-being of people. Otherwise, why would we do it, right? I mean, if we're working on some aspect of agriculture outreach or community nutrition education or financial literacy or some aspect of mental health or substance abuse or any of the number of things that we do with 4H, with positive youth development, everything we do really ultimately affects the health of people. And so I think what we're seeing is a recognition of that.

And again, certainly, with the pandemic, there's a lot of opportunity for outreach education. Our role-- and I want to be really clear about that-- our role in health is outreach engagement, engaging with health care and public health partners within our communities so that we provide research-based information so that people can make informed decisions about their health. We're partnering around vaccination for adults, talking with people about the value of being vaccinated. We talk about cancer prevention. We work on diabetes issues and diabetes management, but not from a clinical perspective, but from an awareness and educational perspective. So really everything that we do, I think, if you raised any subject that we broach within Extension, I could talk with you about why that's important to human health.

PAUL TREADWELL: This does bring up a question though. We're currently living in unsettled times, I guess, is one way of describing it. And there is a resurgence of this antiscience feeling in some of the population. How does that play out? How does Extension skillfully address that and work to shift the conversation to something that is actually going to look at evidence-based solutions and say yes, this vaccine is accepted? What role do we have as a system in helping to steer that conversation?

CAROLINE HENNEY: If you look at the origins of the Land Grant and Cooperative Extension mission, our role has always been to look at the research that's coming out of universities and share the latest evidence-based information that we have available to us with our communities. And so this certainly to a great extent is it's a politicized issue. I think ultimately, of course, people need to make decisions about their health. But our role is really to help them to make informed decisions with the latest research that we have available to us. And I think that is an important role.

And certainly, within communities, some of these conversations, even conversations around civil discourse, are challenging. But I think Extension educators and agents are trusted members of their communities. And so hopefully, we will be able to help again, people make informed decisions about their health.

KATIE BAILDON: Earlier on, you also mentioned climate resiliency and adaptation as one of the kind of key themes that we're seeing in Extension work. Can you talk a little bit more about that and how it's playing out across the country in the programming that's being offered?

CAROLINE HENNEY: There's always been, within the natural resources and environmental arena, a need to look at, without attribution, what climate impacts are. Right? Extension helps people to mitigate disasters related to flooding or to any type of weather event due to climate variability. And I say no attribution-- our role is to really look at how we help people and communities address issues related to climate events that help them in the best way possible.

One of the things that we have, in terms of being a national system, is the Extension to Disaster Education Network, EDEN. And that provides many, many resources that can help with mitigation, with resiliency, with adaptation to the climate events that we're seeing. So I think we have a really strong role there connecting with the climate hubs across the nation to work together on climate-related issues, weather-related issues. And there is certainly support within this new administration in this country to look at everyone's role in climate. And so looking at what is the place of Extension, how can we help people in communities, that's where we are right now.

KATIE BAILDON: As we're talking about some of these trends that we're seeing in Extension work nationally, what is your vision of the future? How some of these trends might be impacting the way that Extension carries out its work?

CAROLINE HENNEY: One of the most interesting things that we're seeing, of course, is because out of necessity, having to come up with new and innovative ways to reach our audiences in a digital virtual world. And I'm not sure that we will ever fully go back to how we engaged with our communities in the past. Certainly, there's a great need for that sort of high-touch interaction with our audiences, in-person trainings and those kinds of things. But we've developed many new and innovative ways of reaching people.

One of the challenges is because of this shift, we may not always be meeting the needs of our traditional audiences because of lack of broadband access. But we're reaching new audiences that we've never reached before because of this digital world we're living in. So that, from a delivery kind of methodology in terms of how we do our work, or how we reach our audiences, we've really engaged in great innovation in that regard.

One of the things that I'm seeing as well is because of what has occurred, there is a much greater recognition by the legislators, by key decision-makers about the value of Extension. Much greater awareness-- and you always hear that old adage that we're this great treasure that nobody knows about, right? But there is a much greater focus on Extension because of our ability to reach people across the nation. So that's very exciting.

And then certainly, there will always be, as I said earlier, those societal issues that will drive what we do based on the needs of people in communities. Right now it's COVID-19, it's broadband access, it's workforce development issues, issues related to community nutrition education. Those kinds of issues are certainly our priorities. But once we solve all those, there will be new issues, new challenges that I'm very certain Extension will rise to and evolve.

PAUL TREADWELL: So from your perspective, the future for Extension looks pretty positive?

CAROLINE HENNEY: I really believe that. For a very long time, I was not so sure. But I see the system coming together as a system to address these incredible challenges the nation is facing. I see that we are more valued, I think, than we have ever been. And we're starting to see resources come into the system because of that.

So with everything-- everything in life sort of ebbs and flows, right? And we've seen that over time with Extension. But I think we're into that flow phase. And we're going to capitalize on that as much as possible.

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