Starting a new job is often a stressful, unpredictable affair. Starting a new job as the head of a major agricultural agency during a worldwide pandemic is a completely different ball game.
Dr. Bob Scott became the newest director of the Cooperative Extension Service, part of the University of Arkansas System of Agriculture, on July 1. Even his job was not immune from the COVID-19 pandemic; he never had an in-person meeting during the interview process. Scott is likely the first employee ever hired for the Cooperative Extension Service over Zoom.
Announcing the hiring in June, University of Arkansas Vice President for Agriculture Mark Cochran called Scott “a great asset” for the Extension Service as evidenced by his mastery of agriculture and prior administrative experience. “We are extremely pleased that we were able to attract a candidate of Dr. Scott’s caliber to this important position. Dr. Scott brings a strong understanding of Arkansas agriculture and his long connection to the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service will be a great asset as he assumes this role,” he said in a statement.
Sitting in his new office at the Extension Service’s Little Rock headquarters, Scott emanates a calm that underscores his years of experience in the agricultural sector and in administration. Even over a Zoom call, Scott projects an even-tempered disposition, but one with the steel to command an organization with approximately 800 employees looking for guidance during trying times.
“It’s been a little bit of a shock to the system,” Scott said. “It’s all seemed to happen really fast.”
Despite the shock, Scott hasn’t allowed it to slow him down. He has hit the ground running, learning about the multiple programs and projects of the Extension Service. “I’m very familiar with the ag side, so I’ve been meeting and really focused on getting caught up with the other areas of extension — all of the other things that we do. It’s been a very informative and busy couple of weeks,” he said.
Adjusting to the director’s seat shouldn’t be a major challenge for the almost 20-year Extension Service veteran. Joining the Extension Service in 2002, Scott has served as a weed science specialist, and he later joined the administrative side of the agency, becoming the head of the Lonoke and Newport centers in 2013. In 2018, he took a major jump after being named the director for the Rice Research and Extension Center in Stuttgart.
The Oklahoma native admitted that he has a soft spot for the Extension Service’s agricultural programs. After all, he grew up living and breathing agriculture, as he grew up on a family farm in Binger, Okla. But he got early experience in the multiple focus areas that he will lead as Extension Service director: his father was a peanut farmer and cattleman, but his mother was a home economics teacher.
He headed off to Oklahoma State University to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agronomy, as well as a doctorate in weed science from Mississippi State University. He spent five years in the agricultural industry working as a technical service representative for a chemical company before joining the Extension Service in 2002.
“In all honesty, it never occurred to me not to major in agriculture. I think I might have thought about business law for a minute. There were a couple of other things I considered,” Scott said. “Agriculture is in my blood. I don’t know what else I might have done if there wasn’t a career in agriculture. That was never a thought.”
But don’t think that Scott is limited to agricultural research and administration. According to Rick Cartwright, who retired as the Extension Center director this year, Scott is well prepared for the expanded challenges that lay in front of him. His previous administrative roles have laid the groundwork for increasing responsibility in the agency as Scott managed more people, money and projects. “It’s just the scale,” Cartwright said. “He’s scaled up over time.”
The first challenge facing him is navigating the Extension Service’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. This challenge will not be limited to how the Extension Service ensures the safety of its own employees but will determine the direction of whole programs. Many of the programs that the Extension Service runs are based on face-to-face interaction with the public. This has required a drastic shift in a short amount of time.
So far, Scott says the agency has set a high bar for performance.
“We really changed our approach and adapted with these times. Going forward long-term, I think we’re going to learn a lot from this crisis. I really think going forward, we’re going to see some of the things that we’ve learned to do on Zoom and via social media — we may keep doing it that way. We’re seeing some efficiencies,” he said.
Since March, the Extension Service has become increasingly focused on providing unbiased education on COVID-19 and its impact on Arkansas. Most of these efforts have been online. Scott cited 1.8 million online contacts related to COVID-19 efforts with 11,000 social media views for its content.
“The short-term has been all COVID, all the time,” he said.
Once the pandemic begins to equalize, Scott hopes to return to a semblance of normalcy for the programs — at least returning to in-person interaction for programs that necessitate it, such as the 4-H program. But, he acknowledged that the pandemic has created a “new world” that will change how the Extension Service operates from now on.
Many new executives might focus on growing their agencies and programs, but Scott sees his challenge differently moving forward. The challenge facing the Extension Service is maintaining the ability to adapt and be nimble in the face of changing circumstances.
The pandemic has certainly revealed the need for quick adaptability, but this need goes deeper, Scott insisted. Fundamental societal and technology shifts will dictate how the Extension Service employees provide services.
Determining how to respond to these shifts will be the responsibility of all employees, but Scott knows the ultimate direction will come from the top.
“Part of our job security is making sure that we change and adapt with the needs of the people in the state,” he said. “If we’re not doing that, that buck probably stops here in this office. Our job is to continue to read the landscape of where we can help folks, where we are needed.
“People get in, and they want to stay in their little wheelhouse and do their program. Society and demographics are always changing. So, part of our challenge is to manage that and keep up with it.”
Arkansas has traditionally been, and still largely is, a rural and agricultural state. That has formed the bedrock for the Extension Service’s programs for decades. That’s one reason the agency continues to have a county agent in each of the state’s 75 counties. But Scott knows the headwinds are shifting, if slightly, in Arkansas.
The average farmer’s age is trending upward, as is the size of the average farm in Arkansas. As a result, the Extension Service’s traditional support base is potentially shrinking. But other programs promise to grow that base, providing a suburban base to complement the existing support.
Many of the people Scott hopes to reach that are in these “nontraditional” areas might not even know the Extension Service has something to offer them. That’s why Scott sees himself as the Extension Service’s promoter, the one who has to shine a light and lift up these under-the-radar programs.
“Part of my job is going to be to make sure that folks that think they haven’t heard of the Extension Service or think that it doesn’t have anything to offer them, it probably does,” Scott said.
With the November 2020 election quickly approaching, one of the Extension Service programs that is weighing heavily on his mind is its voter resources guide and ballot issues education. Ensuring that this information remains unbiased and educational is a tricky balancing act, he said, but is an essential example of the non-agricultural services that the Extension Service provides to Arkansas citizens.
“It’s very difficult to make sure that that thing stays neutral,” he said. “That affects everybody. If you vote, there’s an Extension program for you. We have a lot of things like that. I just hope to get the word out and continue to promote these things so people will use them. They’re there for people to use.”
Scott is focused on advancing the Extension Service’s mission — strengthening Arkansas’ agriculture, communities and families through research and education ¬— during what promises to be a time filled with cascading changes.
“I think we’re doing fine in [agriculture]. We’re doing wonderful things in these other areas. We just have to keep our finger on the pulse of where our clientele is, who they are and how they’re changing out there in the state,” he said.