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A Conversation with Dr. Scott Reed, Extension Foundation Catalyst

Scott Reed is an emeritus of Oregon State University (OSU), where he served in various College of Forestry roles. He was a professor, executive associate dean, Extension program leader, and Dean and Director of OSU’s Extension Service. Scott served as the OSU’s Vice Provost for University Outreach and Engagement. He pioneered the innovative Open Campus, linking educational resources to advance college and career readiness, degree completion, and community development. Scott holds BS and MS degrees in forestry from Michigan State, and a PhD in policy and economics from the University of Minnesota.

Scott currently shares his expertise as an Extension Foundation Catalyst.

Catalysts are Extension experts who support New Technologies for Ag Extension (NTAE) projects chosen to participate in Extension Foundation’s project accelerator program. This program is part of a cooperative agreement with USDA-NIFA. In Year One (2019), the Extension Foundation selected 4 projects to participate. In Year Two (2020), 8 projects were chosen from among 33 competitive nominations across the Cooperative Extension system. Applications for Year Three – beginning in Fall 2021 – will be available shortly. You can learn about past NTAE projects here.

We recently sat down for a conversation about Scott’s work as a Catalyst, and what he thinks might lie in Extension’s future.

Can you tell us a little about your work as an NTAE Catalyst?

Catalysts play multiple roles depending upon the project stage and where the team stands.

I would describe my role as a mix of coach, mentor, analyst, strategist, and finally, a reflector, to join with teams and reflect on the progress they’ve made and where they are going. I deliberately index the role I play to the stage of each project. Early in the project year, catalysts play more of a conceptual role and help conceive and design the projects. Later in the year, the work is much more execution-oriented.

My role as a catalyst has been a fascinating return to my roots in Extension programming. As a director, I didn’t always have the luxury of time to invest in on-the-ground program development.  An extra reward is working with my catalyst colleagues (Chuck Hibberd, Fred Schlutt, Rick Klemme, and Chuck Ross) - each of whom brings a lifetime of experience to the table. That provides a professional development opportunity for me, along with working with the integrated specialist team, those individuals providing wrap-around services (WAS) to the NTAE projects.

What results/impacts have you seen?

By virtue of NTAE projects being data-driven and informed largely by the audience assessment feature that WAS incorporates, means that the projects have more focus and an improved design. Results are more assured.

I’ve observed that collaborative team-based decision-making rather than the traditional higher education principal investigator (PI) model focuses on team health. I’ve watched the performance of teams get respectively better as we work on team health and their decision-making. I’ve also observed more iterative program development driven by ongoing conversations with the catalysts and WAS. Again, I contrast that to the traditional PI model where the PI conceives of the project, writes a grant for it, puts it on the ground, and it kind of drives itself.

I love the benefits gained by the capture of lessons learned and the content via the eFieldbooks (ePublications). Few Extension projects in my past have spent such focused time capturing the lessons learned and then sharing them with the profession.

You’ve been at the vanguard of bringing Extension’s strengths in engagement to the center of a University’s mission. Any reflections on this, and how it might inform Extension’s future...and the future of higher ed in general?

I love the concept of university engagement and its influence on co-development, because it places the university in a learner role in contrast to the historic expert model, where the university does research and then Extension shares the results, and people are somehow “made better” because of that.

I don’t dismiss the expert model entirely because some things deserve and need research-based recommendations. But the university has too seldom engaged with its partners and learners to co-develop for reciprocal developments.

In my view, Extension is the logical institutional leader for this function and has been since at least 1949. Ruby Green Smith’s book - The People’s Colleges: A History of the New York State Extension Service in Cornell University and the State, 1876-1948 - was written that year. Green was a home economist at Cornell. In it, she emphasized what she called “vigorous reciprocity”, which characterized the early stages of Extension six, seven decades ago. And I found it interesting that the same concept - what was old became new again - when the then National Association of State Universities and Land-grant Colleges (NASULGC) created the Kellogg Commission which in 1999 created a series of publications, one of which was Returning to Our Roots. That publication didn’t use the term “vigorous reciprocity”, but the theme was the same, which Extension has recognized from the beginning. There was probably a period of time when we lost our way.

Smith’s book was republished in 2013 with a new preface written by an Extension historian named Scott Peters, also from Cornell. It has caused conversations for the last twenty years that have contemporary manifestations. We have gone far down the path in redefining what engaged scholarship looks like in a university setting.

We are continuing to refine the concept of peer. Researchers are long known to have peer review for their work; peer traditionally means the scientist next door or down the hall, when in fact community peers are among the most able to validate the work. I see a future where the research paradigm is beginning to evolve. You can see parts of it in places like the National Science Foundation (NSF) where they are now emphasizing “broader impacts” in their proposals. As scientists set up research hypotheses, community members deserve to have access to help determine the design and function of research so that the results it shares are inspired by the partnership.

I remember sitting at one of the last APLU annual meetings I attended. One of the sessions was about outreach. One of the panelists was a community member. As we talked about the important work done in communities, that individual said, “You in the audience are the academics, but we in the communities are the experts. We’re living the issues.”

Just the fact that we’re on the path of recognizing the role and function of community in our university work is important.

You spent decades in Extension, working at many levels. What have been the most significant changes you've seen during your career? Has COVID accelerated this? If so, in what ways?

I retired shortly before the pandemic. In my role as a catalyst, however, I’ve seen that the pandemic had demonstrated that the Extension environment was stimulated and recognized The innovation much more than before, and the cycle time to develop and deliver programs was faster. That’s the accelerated function. We couldn’t do traditional program design and delivery, so this had to be reinvention on the fly.

Thinking over my career, the conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion have become much richer over my career. Today we are recognizing the unique qualities of differences in people. We’re talking about intersectionality. We’re talking about social, environmental, economic, and financial justice. We’re talking about implicit bias, which is often unrecognized by dominant classes. We’re talking about the role of allies, each having an immersive responsibility in diversity, equity, and inclusion. The conversations have really evolved.

There continues to be a rural-urban tension in Extension. While we’re investing more energy in metropolitan populations, I don’t think we are where we need to be yet. And here I’m reminded of a quotation from a famous bank robber named Willie Sutton. He was asked once why he robbed banks, and he replied, “That’s where the money is.”

When I answer the question why should we care about urban and metropolitan populations, I would say that’s where more than 82% of Americans live and work.

The tie to communities is really the fundamental piece in the way Extension should define its priorities, and that’s been the enduring feature of Extension we can’t afford to lose track of. If I were to reinvent Extension today, the first position in every county that I would deploy would be a community development specialist. I would let them diagnose the community attributes, issues, and needs, and then I would follow with the expertise needed based upon that community assessment.

How can Extension best prepare for periods of disruption or minimize the odds of being disrupted? Are there particular skill sets or mindsets that you think Extension professionals should develop?

Here’s some of my thinking about how Extension might move forward while preparing for and minimize the odds of being disrupted. We need to internally disrupt ourselves, or others will disrupt us with their innovations. There’s an author named Clayton Christensen who has written about disruptive innovation.

  • Diversify and continue diversification because expanded skillsets are assured as long as we’re not replacing positions as they were, hiring exclusively from the dominant class, and continuing the existing culture. Anything that diversifies the organization means that we have a broader set of skills to work on things.
  • Hire from the outside. For most of my career, we required Extension or equivalent experience, which really reinforces existing cultures. I’m reminded here of a quote from an author named Adam Grant, who wrote a book entitled Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. He identified what he called “middle class conformity.” When you’re working in a relatively uniform environment with people like you the working culture tends to reinforce itself rather than thinking differently. I believe that hiring from the outside is important. I’m an example of that. I came from the private sector. Some of my colleagues took me aside early in the process in order that I learn “the extension way” of doing things. It helped me understand the culture, but in some ways it depressed my different way of thinking in the organization.
  • Extension needs to learn to spin off or let go of mature programs. Extension is not very good at declaring victory and moving on. It’s entirely reasonable, I think, to find other institutions, places, and self-empowerment approaches where we can create a needed project or program. And once it’s mature, we can move onto the next issue that’s calling for our attention. We have difficulty doing this.
  • We need to embrace social media as part of the influence economy. Instagram recently turned ten years old and has 1B users worldwide, including 1 in 3 Americans. I’d love to see data to understand what fraction of Extension professionals are on Instagram to see if it mirrors the world demographic data.
  • Embrace customer relationship management (CRM) programs. Only by doing that can we more precisely target and analyze audiences, and be certain the information they are getting from us exactly meets their needs. We can be much better at using CRMs to see how we have engaged clientele and therefore target their work in the future. CRMs are used very effectively in the private sector.
  • Extension is located in higher education institutions. Part of university academic measures of their work are retention rate; completion rate; and academic performance. Why couldn’t Extension begin to characterize our work this way? Universities may pay better attention to Extension if we adopt that mentality. Do our learners come back to us because we have served their needs, therefore we have retained them? What about competition rate? How often have we thought about using micro credentials or some sort of authentication process that enables people to take something away that demonstrates their capabilities? We’ve long used behavior change as a measure, which is the gold-standard measure. But then the question might be, how can we credential people who have learned and changed their behaviors so that’s a recognizabe attribute in society? Academic performance is less straightforward. Should Extension begin to think about the quality and degree of learning of our people?
  • Extension may need to abandon strategic planning in favor of real time constant conversation with society and those we’re serving. The magazine Fast Company agrees with me, saying “Strategic planning is obsolete because the future doesn’t cooperate without plans. The environment we execute in is not the environment we planned for.” The approach prescribed by those who believe as I do is that we need to configure nimble teams, think 3-6 months out, and be ready to adjust on the fly. In a keynote address, four-time university president Gordon Gee said that, ““strategic planning” at universities functions less often as a compass and more often as a speed bump to impede progress.””
  • Extension has some experience and is uniquely positioned to broker and convene partnerships, especially partnerships with the “social economy” (NGOs and foundations). In Oregon alone, there are nearly 200 NGOs doing work on the same issues that we are in in Extension. They have resources, people, and energy. I’m convinced that partnerships with these kinds of organizations will increase resources and speed progress.
  • Extension should allocate a portion of our budget to a short-term, specialty-skill workforce. Too often I have seen people in my organization be unwilling or reluctant to change because the position description they were hired on says they are to work on a certain thing. We lose the nimbleness that goes along with speciality skills for a short time. That may also align with generational changes in attitude.
  • We should tackle transdisciplinary issues with cross-university talent. It’s important for Extension to be the convener around issues. Universities can serve as a “village green” for conversations that can likely not happen anywhere else. Extension is university-wide and can access full-range of university talent, we have a huge leg up. Tackling these tough issues that require multiple disciplines and assembling the community experts and university experts together around issues is a way forward.
  • Extension needs to assist with other university goals and missions, especially student success and degree completion. There is nothing like a local Extension office to provide an experiential learning opportunity for university students. Extension has not systematically and widely adopted its role and contribution to student success.
  • We can and should convene community hubs for educational progression. The notion of educational pathways is getting more attention in the literature. We are losing learners in the transitions. In Extension we have this historic pattern of having community input into our work through what we usually call “advisory committees.” These committees can be advocates for the status quo. In Oregon, we began to assemble “education councils'' in counties that weren’t program related at all. They were educationally oriented. On the educational council sat representatives from the community college, K-12, business, NGOs, etc. We talked about educational pathways and what was and wasn’t working. We called that experiment “open campus.” It has inspired a different way of thinking in a community about what Extension’s role is and what communities deserve.

Where do you think opportunities lie for Extension now, and in the future?

Extension will play an important part in helping to advance the role and appreciation of science. There is always room for interpretation and different conclusions. But science-based conclusions are driven by data. Extension has an opportunity to reinforce the distinction among facts, myths, and values. They tend to get shaken up in the same bag. We can help people distinguish among those. How do you know something is a fact? A value? Extension can help Americans do a better job of digesting and interpreting information.

There are too many deniers in our world who could become more informed about climate change, GMOs, and vaccinations. We can help people move from denier to the informed category.

We can also help build democracy. Democracy is at risk for lots of reasons. Extension has the presence and credibility to help inform engaged social and economic change. Education leads to a more robust democratic process. This may seem to be taking Extension out of its historic role, yet a big part of its historic role was to help America function better. (Scott Peters explores this in his work). We haven’t very deliberately addressed problems of democracy.

What books, podcasts, etc. are currently informing your thinking?

I’m a voracious consumer of news, especially political news. I get up each morning around 5:00 a.m. and spend the first two hours of my day absorbing news. I subscribe to the Washington Post and watch CNN.

I’m also attracted to anything from futurist literature. I’m intrigued by the work of the Institute of the Future in Palo Alto. Their work causes me to think differently and causes me to question things I believe. I find I’ve been most productive and successful when I’m a little off-balance. I have a higher level of focus and more creativity, and am more open to other things.

I like learning about leadership theories, stories, and models. This helps me in my role as a catalyst. I like sharing perspectives with my son on how we move inside the world. He recently sent me two books. One is written by a Navy captain and is called It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. It’s about decentralized decision making. His crew became part owners of the destiny and success of that ship. The other book is called “Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALS Lead and Win.” It is a different take on leadership than the first book, because the Navy SEALS have a command and control approach: someone has to take control. These books provide two different ways to think about leadership. I’m intrigued by the various and sometimes conflicting approaches to leadership theories. I like Adam Grant’s book about nonconformists. I also am intrigued by Stephen Gavazzi and Gordon Gee’s book on land-grant universities for the future. In it, they interview 27 university presidents and chancellors.

I like self-help perspectives and recreational guides. Recent reads include: Atomic Habits; Younger Next Year; and Soggy Sneakers. I will read anything about Harley-Davidson because I grew up in a motorcycle family and have had one in my garage for my whole life. I have subscribed to the Medium digest, because it’s a huge and daily collection of short insights about how to think differently and be better.

Finally, I’m a consumer of fiction, mostly while exercising and driving. I like Audible books. I have in my library James Patterson, John Grisham, and Michael Connelly. I recently learned that Jake Tapper, CNN’s Washington correspondent,  is a fiction writer. His most recent book is The Devil May Dance, and I’m looking forward to listening to his work.

Related Reading:

Accelerating Success: A Q&A with Dr. Fred Schlutt

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About the Extension Foundation

The Extension Foundation was formed in 2006 by Extension Directors and Administrators. Today, the Foundation partners with Cooperative Extension through liaison roles and a formal plan of work with the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) to increase system capacity while providing programmatic services, and helping Extension programs scale and investigate new methods and models for implementing programs. The Foundation provides professional development to Cooperative Extension professionals and offers exclusive services to its members. In 2020 and 2021, the Extension Foundation has awarded 85% of its direct funding back to the Cooperative Extension System, 100% of funds are used to support Cooperative Extension initiatives. 

This technology is supported in part by New Technologies for Ag Extension (funding opportunity no. USDA-NIFA-OP-010186), grant no. 2023-41595-41325 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Extension Foundation. For more information, please visit You can view the terms of useat

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