Illinois Extension expands executive leadership to meet commercial ag, environment needs

University of Illinois Extension is pleased to announce the creation of a new senior leadership position that will expand coverage of commercial agriculture and environmental topics. The transition represents strategic growth in how the organization will address current and emerging needs that are important to Illinois residents, businesses, and farmers.

Following recent personnel changes, Shelly Nickols-Richardson, associate dean and director of extension and outreach in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at the University of Illinois, took the opportunity to conduct a needs assessment. The goal was to assess the organization’s capacity to meet current and future needs in this sector. Results revealed a critical need for more high-level leadership and stewardship of resources to address a widening gap across the state related to education, research, and resource development serving commercial agriculture and environmental topics.

“While meeting with and listening to a variety of stakeholders over the past six months, I learned a great deal about what matters to the state of Illinois when it comes to agriculture and the environment,” Nickols-Richardson said. “When we contrasted this against our current programming and organizational models, it seemed clear that we needed to explore how to create additional capacity and focus on this specific need.”

To accomplish this, Nickols-Richardson will segment the responsibilities of one former leadership position into two new roles.

  • The assistant dean and program leader for Agriculture and Agribusiness (AAB) program area will address needs related to commercial agriculture, horticulture, the popular Master Gardener program, and small farms and local food systems.
  • The assistant dean and program leader for Natural Resources, Environment, and Energy (NREE) area will focus on environment and energy sustainability and the growing Master Naturalist program, and they will provide oversight to Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and the U of I Arboretum.

“Developing organizational capacity to meaningfully address emerging and expanding fields of inquiry is essential to our work in the college,” said Kim Kidwell, Robert A. Easter chair and dean of the College of ACES at the U of I. “Creating an organizational structure that is agile, responsive, and focused will allow Extension to pursue new ideas and explore projects and topics that have perhaps felt under-resourced relative to some of the other initiatives in the Extension system.”

This transition introduces another notable new addition to the Extension portfolio—the University of Illinois Arboretum. Under the new organizational structure, administration and management of the arboretum and its programs will be housed under the NREE program area. This alignment allows Extension to help shape decisions regarding the opportunities and possibilities for this 57-acre resource on campus with an eye toward public engagement and outreach.

Preparations for this transition are in early stages, but the first steps are expected roll out over the next several months. While some current employees may find that their reporting lines or job descriptions are slightly modified, all employees are expected to find a home in the new organizational structure where their contributions can be maximized.

“Illinois Extension is proud to work with some of the finest educators and researchers who are deeply passionate about their work and its potential for impact across Illinois and beyond,” Nickols-Richardson said. “We want to enable and empower them to do more of what they love, and we believe this organizational change will support that goal.”

The next step in the process will be to post the AAB and NREE assistant dean and program leader position descriptions. Extension leadership will simultaneously launch an assessment of the cascading impact on all existing positions in the unit.  


News writer/media contact: Samantha Koon, Illinois Extension Communications Director,, 217-898-3509