Linda F. Benedict, McClure, Olivia J.
Leodrey Williams, chancellor of the Southern University Agricultural Research and Extension Center, has worked in extension for nearly 50 years half of extension’s entire existence.
His career began with a job title that became illegal six weeks after he was hired: assistant county agent for work with Negroes in Richland Parish. As civil rights reforms took effect, the Department of Justice ordered extension to change those titles.
It was 1965, just a year after the Civil Rights Act passed. Although his work was occasionally disrupted by civil rights marches and rallies, Williams was an energetic one-man band, providing residents with information on everything from science to youth development to horticulture.
As activists promoted social changes that were resisted in the South, Williams met farmers who were reluctant to change their methods and did not always appreciate visits from county agents.
Williams once stopped by a farm owned by a man who said he didn’t need any help — in fact, he claimed to teach county agents things they didn’t know. Williams believed him upon seeing his beautiful garden.
“I said, ‘I’d like to see everybody with a garden like this. I can’t help you, but I can get you to help me to have everybody have a garden like this,’” Williams said. “That put him in a supporting role. He knew more about gardening, and he could help his neighbors.”
Getting people involved mattered because skeptical farmers could better learn from one another, Williams said. As an agent, he said it was important to draw on people’s knowledge and use it to help in the big picture.
All extension work in Louisiana originally took place through LSU. In 1971, Southern University set up its own extension office, where Williams was hired as an agriculture specialist. The only other employees at the time were the extension coordinator and two secretaries. The small team worked together to recruit staff and develop programs.
Williams became the extension director in 1980 and began gaining national recognition. In the early 1990s, he cochaired a task force that examined ways to ensure the “upward mobility of extension,” Williams said, which was a monumental effort.
One major issue was funding — at the time, participation in certain programs was limited to land-grant universities formed by the 1862 Morrill Act. This excluded institutions created by the 1890 Morrill Act, many of which are historically black colleges and universities. No one wanted to give up funding to help the other group, Williams said, so the task force established funding baselines that applied to all extension programs.
Another recommendation the task force made was to designate an ombudsman to carry out their reforms. The national director asked Williams to fill that position. He was not sure he wanted the job because he would have to move to Washington, D.C.
“I started thinking, I’ve served on many task forces and committees where nothing happened after they did their work,” Williams said. “Now they’re trying to implement something and I’ve helped give leadership to this, and I’m refusing to do it.”
He agreed to take the job.
Four months later, the national director retired and Williams took over. Now in charge of funding extension programs at the U.S.’s 104 land-grant universities, Williams found himself in the middle of a national conversation about reorganizing government.
As the U.S. Department of Agriculture downsized, Williams led the effort to merge the Cooperative State Research Service and Cooperative Extension System into one entity — the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service.
Williams returned as Southern’s extension director in 1995. Soon after, he joined the 9/9/99 Club — a group of agriculture and extension professionals who aimed to retire on Sept. 9, 1999, that included former LSU AgCenter Vice Chancellor Jack Bagent. Bagent retired in 2001, the same year Williams was asked to lead the newlyformed Southern University Ag Center.
Today, Williams jokes that he is the best chancellor the Southern University Ag Center has ever seen — a justifiable statement, he explained, because he is the only one so far.
As chancellor, Williams has focused on developing the campus as a positive force in Louisiana and the agriculture community. Williams, who was inducted to the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame in 1996, said it is easy to stay busy if one is willing to learn from people and find ways to use knowledge to benefit everyone.
To Williams, that is what extension is all about.
“It’s about people,” he said. “No matter what you do, whether it’s in community development, if it’s in small business development, it’s enhancing the socioeconomic quality of life for people. You have more people now than you had 100 years ago. As long as there are people, there will be a need for extension.”
Olivia McClure is a student worker in LSU AgCenter Communications.
(This article was published in the spring 2014 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)