A sociologist by training, Jeff Dwyer served in tenured positions at the University of Florida and Wayne State University before being appointed in 2006 as the senior associate dean at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine. Now Dwyer plans to use the knowledge he’s acquired in those positions to lead the MSU Extension, an organization charged with helping individuals, communities and businesses access the resources available through the university. Following his appointment as director on April 4, Dwyer spoke with MiBiz about his long-term vision for the MSU Extension and how he plans to grow the 600-person organization to play a larger role in the state.
How will your experience at the College of Human Medicine translate into your new role?
I’ve spent the last 10 years as the associate dean of the College of Human Medicine so there was a little head-scratching when I was announced as the director of MSU Extension. One of the areas of great commonalities between the two is that Extension is a statewide organization. A lot of people don’t know, (but) the College of Human Medicine has seven campuses all over the state ranging from Southfield to the Upper Peninsula. I was one of a couple of people who spent the most time on the road between those campuses and built a statewide research network around working with partners who would help us fund positions. Part of what I learned is the whole aspect of building relationships and finding partners that have aligned interests. That’s something that we’re going to apply at Extension.
The MSU Extension sustained significant budget cuts during the economic downturn. With economists predicting the economy is nearing its peak in the cycle, does the potential for another downturn worry you?
As the leader of this organization now, it’s reasonable for me to be generally concerned. … Clearly, we were impacted during the (downturn). I wasn’t here at the time, but the Extension went through a major restructuring to address the cuts that had to be made. I think some really good people made some really smart decisions in a difficult context.
Do you have a plan in place to avoid future budget cuts?
Historically, our three primary sources of support have been county, state and federal funding. Clearly, as I talk about a growing organization, those are not going to be the avenues. A big part of what we’re going to do is work even more closely with our partners around the state and build new partnerships that will grow this organization. It could be private industry, commodity groups (or) people who have an affinity for what we do and wish to support us philanthropically.
What areas do you want to focus on in growing the MSU Extension?
I don’t want to say that everything is my favorite, but that’s why we need to grow the entire organization. It’s not to say that over time, maybe we’ll find a program isn’t needed anymore or we need to add a program. Certainly, we’ll make those kinds of modifications. But in a general sense, we want to grow all of these areas because we know they’re important.
On the agriculture side, what can the MSU Extension do to help farmers navigate a shortage of educated workers?
Part of what I see as a longer-term vision for us is simply making sure people understand the sophisticated nature of what goes on in modern agriculture — not just the corporation side, but with family operations. There are some real opportunities there for people. Even on a dairy farm, you can make a major contribution professionally without ever having to milk a cow. If there’s a young person wanting to go to college and learn technology or engineering related to the environment and wastewater treatment, agriculture should be one of the things they think about.
In conversations with Michigan’s craft beverage industry, there’s a notion that hop growers seem to be going strong, but there’s a bottleneck around malted grain. Is that something the Extension will look into?
The absolute answer is yes. What Rob Sirrine (an educator at MSU Extension) and his colleagues have done in the last five years in the hops industry, I hope people understand how phenomenal that is. We are already well ensconced in that process and imagine that five years from now, we’ll see exciting things on (the malted grain) side just like we did with hops.
Beyond talent attraction for agribusinesses, what else encompasses your long-term vision for the MSU Extension?
First of all, we need more people to know who we are, where we are and what we do. Even though we’ve been in existence for over 100 years, even though we have 600 people across the state, there are still people that aren’t fully aware of what we provide. Another part is to really work closely with our customers, whether it’s agriculture, commodity groups, or families, to make sure we’re providing what they need today. I think what happens a lot of times in organizations is we go along and do very good work and know the world is changing around us and sometimes we need to adapt to that.