Joe Zublena brings experience and strategy to bear as state Extension director.
A poster on Dr. Joe Zublena’s office wall describes power of a leader. “By the strength of the leader’s commitment,” it says, “the power of the team is unleashed.”
Today, Zublena’s challenge is unleashing the power of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, the largest extension program at N.C. State University and one of the largest in the country. In December, Zublena was named Extension’s director, as well as associate dean for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Zublena brings more than 30 years of experience with extension and a passion for its ability to bring about positive changes for farmers, families and young people. He hopes to help the organization focus its programs, defining those areas in which it can make the strongest impact and making those areas the highest priorities when it comes to funding and staffing decisions.
Zublena describes himself as a “product of Extension.” His first brush with the organization was as a student at Rutgers University, the land-grant university of New Jersey. He’d earned a bachelor’s degree in botany and a master’s degree in soils and crops when he landed an assistantship with Extension specialist Jim Justin.
“Through him, I learned there’s something about an extension personality. He knew the issues, and he knew how to do things to impact the issues,” Zublena recalls. “I knew I liked extension because it was changing things. And the other thing is, it was fun. It wasn’t boring — every day was something new, a new issue or a new concern.
“I just knew it was me.”
After earning his Ph.D. in 1979, Zublena took a job as an assistant professor and extension agronomist at Clemson University. There, he specialized in corn and sorghum. But in 1988 a career that had to that point been focused on crop production took a turn. Hired as N.C. State’s Extension leader for the Department of Soil Science, he soon found himself leading programs in the area of waste management.
At the time, waste management was emerging as a key issue in North Carolina, and Zublena helped develop a comprehensive train-the-trainer program related to waste management on farms. He was also one of the first extension specialists nationwide to conduct a nutrient mapping effort to identify areas where waste production was most likely to push soil nutrient levels too high and thus create problems in the environment.
“It was a wild ride, but it was also a great time for educational opportunities and for addressing an important societal issue,” he said. “I like helping people, solving problems and making things more efficient. And that’s exactly what Extension was doing at that time — and what it continues to do.”
Zublena’s leadership skills factored into Extension’s success in helping North Carolina address waste management issues, and in 1995 he began putting those skills to use as Extension’s associate state program leader for natural resources and community and rural development. The next year, he was named assistant director of Cooperative Extension and director of county operations.
Zublena’s first order of business as state Extension director has been to assemble a top-notch administrative team. To fill the associate director and director of county operations position he previously held, he appointed Sheri Schwab, a lawyer who most recently served as the college’s assistant dean for personnel.
Zublena also appointed Dr. Tom Melton to fill the associate director position in charge of Extension’s agricultural, natural resources and community and rural development programs. Melton is a plant pathologist who had served as Extension’s assistant director for agricultural programs.
Rounding out the administrative team is Dr. Marshall Stewart, an agricultural educator who has for six years been associate director of 4-H youth development and family and consumer sciences.
Zublena sees the team’s task as one of rebuilding – of helping to lay a foundation of strong, focused programs that have a meaningful and deliberate impact on the lives of North Carolina’s people.
The organization, he says, has an outstanding faculty and staff dedicated to the mission of empowering people and providing solutions through research-based knowledge and technology. It has a rich, century-long history of improving the state’s economy, the environment and the quality of life. And it has a committed network of partners and volunteers who amplify Extension’s efforts.
But in today’s competitive environment and tight economic times, Extension needs to get serious about being strategic, Zublena says.
“We are very scattered,” he says. “Everyone is doing good stuff, but that good stuff is going in all directions. It’s not focused. What I’d like for everyone to do now is to just face north and start doing good things facing north. And then we’ll try to slowly pull things in to be more focused – to go from a shotgun approach to that of a rifle – something that’s narrower and more well-defined.”
And that, he says, means deciding which programs Extension should focus on and then defining what success in those program areas will look like.
Once that’s decided, he says, it’s time for action: putting the processes and people in place to achieve that success. “Whenever we fund something or hire a new position, we have to know how it builds toward that defined success,” he says.
While Extension has in the past talked about taking a strategic approach, years of budget cuts and the lack of prioritization pulled the organization off track, Zublena says.
“We need to prioritize so that when we have to make cuts, we cut things that aren’t that rifle point,” he says. “Right now, we don’t know what the rifle point is, so it’s hard to be discriminating. I’ve been talking a lot with the new administrative team about this – defining what we really need to be working on and what we need to be changing.
“My role as the leader is to make sure that we have those critical conversations and dialogues – and that we act on them,” he says. “I’m really excited about the first meetings we’ve had. The administrative team members are expressing their ideas. They are all challenging each other in very positive ways to make the organization better. They really want to move this organization forward.”
Moving ahead, he says, requires more than conversations with a small team. It means hearing what faculty and staff have to say, as well as listening to those outside the organization – funding stakeholders, leaders of partnering organizations, volunteers and clients, among them.
Having such feedback is vital to Extension’s future, Zublena says.
“Cooperative Extension is one of the jewels in the N.C. State family. It is the conduit into every county, and we need to keep building that connection,” he says. “We are looking to strengthen, improve and, we hope, keep this organization as a strength not only for the university but for the state for years to come.”
— Dee Shore