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Imagining Land Grants 50 Years in the Future

AUDIO | Imagining Land Grants 50 Years in the Future
Land-grant universities could go one of two directions in 50 years’ time, depending on the level of state support dedicated to buttressing their mission.

The following interview is with Scott Peters, a professor in the School of Education at Syracuse University and co-director of Imagining America. Peters is a well-known scholar of the history of land-grant universities and, in this interview, discusses the current mission of land-grant universities and explains how their role will evolve in 50 years’ time.

1. When compared to private institutions or even state-funded institutions, what differentiates land-grant universities? Does the land-grant system have any distinctive public purposes and work?

The land-grant system as many people may know was originally established in 1862 through the first Morrill Act that was during the Civil War. It was partly an effort to expand higher education to reach the parts of the population who didn’t have access to it or couldn’t afford it or whose lives and work and interests weren’t being addressed or served by existing curriculums. So when the system originally came into being in the 1860s … it was in fact different from other institutions and had a different set of public purposes.

Part of the distinctiveness has to do with the population, as the land-grant system was established specifically to provide access to, and work with, what were called in those days, “the industrial classes,” what we might call, “the working classes.” Basically, parts of the socioeconomic spectrum that are not in the elite, not even in the middle class.

In those days, there was a very small number of people who even attended higher education. So part of it had to do with that access in those days. While that’s continued into the present, what happened, of course, in the 20th century is that higher education became at the mass level, particularly after WWII and into the 1960s. Then the community college system was established, which didn’t exist in the 19th century. So, that’s taken away the distinctiveness of the public purposes of the land-grant being specifically for those classes. Community colleges have taken that up.

But the other aspect that is quite distinctive about the land-grant system’s public purposes and work, and what differentiates it quite a bit from other state-funded institutions and all other institutions actually, is the way that connections with, and engagement with, people in communities has been institutionalized in that system. And, of course, that’s through the agricultural experiment station system which was first established in the … late 1880s and the national cooperative extension system, which is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary next year; the passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 established the extension system.

So, that is the most distinctive difference between a land-grant system and other institutions: with institutionalized mechanism for engaging students, staff and faculty with folks out in communities and businesses that continues today. It’s not a trivial thing; it’s well over $3 billion of state, local and federal tax monies that is going to support that work. Nobody else has got that. So that’s very distinctive, and of course it isn’t just the mechanism that makes it distinctive, it’s the purpose.

And the purpose of that work is partly economic and technical — and people might be familiar with, and think about, the land-grant system as something that serves agriculture and farmers and helps the extension system; in particular, it helps farmers deal with technical problems they might be having with weeds or pests or diseases — but that’s not the only thing that the land-grant system’s public engagement mission and work is about. It’s also, really, meant to be about — and women and men throughout the history of the system have been fiercely passionate about this — … providing opportunities for ordinary people from all walks of life to develop their talents, their knowledge, their capacities and to be able to contribute to their communities, to their families, to be able to take part in public life at all kinds of different levels.

So, we wouldn’t want to misunderstand the land-grant as being just about solving technical problems to advance the economy. It’s also got this rich cultural and political dimension to it. That’s what much of my work is focused on and it’s frankly why I’ve ended up now at Imagining America, which is a national organization of 100 colleges and universities, many of which are land-grants, that is specifically focused on issues that have to do with our nation’s cultural life and political life.

2. Land-grant universities and their cooperative extension and agricultural experiment station systems receive significant funding from three levels of government: federal, state and county. They also receive hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from corporations such as Monsanto, Novartis, and Kraft Foods. How does this influence the work and responsibilities of these institutions?

Well, one of the challenges … is being able to answer the question of who does the land-grant system work for? What are they supposed to be advancing? Whose interests are they supposed to be serving? This is a topic of disagreement; I’ll put it that way — and debate.

One of the reasons why any country would want to have a public higher education system would have to do with the idea that, somehow, higher education is supposed to contribute to the public. It’s supposed to advance the public good or the common good. And, the use of public funds through tax monies is seen as therefore a legitimate purpose. But, the land-grant system, both now and actually throughout its entire history, scientists and others who have conducted research and done their work in the land-grant system have also received funding from private corporations. There’s been industry partnerships of higher eds for quite some time. So that raises questions about whether that industry-funding will somehow bias the system to serve and try to advance the interests of private corporations, instead of the larger public good.  …

It’s not an easy question to answer because we’re into very slippery territory here, with being able to … identify a bias in somebody’s research or work. So what’s important I think, here, is that this is an issue that needs to be continually examined. In my view, I don’t think that industry or corporate funding is automatically a bad thing. In many ways, it can be a very powerful and important thing. It just depends on how it’s performed and how it plays out, and also depends on whether or not that work displaces or marginalizes work that is with people … who don’t have the ability to provide millions of dollars in order to engage the talents and resources and time of scientists and others in universities.

3. What are the current trends in the land-grant system in terms of the role they play in the higher education space? 

… I would have to say that, right now, what we’re seeing is, in some sense, a set of conflicting trends. But, on the whole … there’s one thing we can stick numbers on, and that is basically that there has been a public disinvestment in the land-grant system. The amount of state, county and federal money that has been budgeted for the land-grant system has declined in real dollars fairly dramatically over the past several decades. And when people look to the future and think about something, for example, the extension system, there are lots of people who are basically pessimistic that that system is going to be able to survive at all, particularly if the economy stays as troubled as it has been. There are trends of declining public investment in the system.  …

Here are where the conflicting trends come in. On one hand, there is an international movement in higher education to reclaim higher education’s public mission, civic mission, to work to expand and deepen the way that people in higher ed are working with people off campuses and communities and in businesses to help people address and understand problems. While that kind of movement is emerging internationally — and certainly the land-grant system is one of the places that’s emerging — at the same time there is also a retreat to the campus and laboratories. There’s a dynamic that is erasing out some of the faculty positions, some of the programs that enable that kind of engagement to happen. … We’re actually losing the institutional capacities to be engaged with communities. So that trend is … contradicting and, ironically, I guess with the other trend and enthusiasm for more engagement. …

You can count this in part by looking at one of the distinctive aspects of the land-grant system, which is that you have faculty positions whose jobs are deliberately and specifically to be engaged with working with people off campus. Those are typically referred to as ‘extension specialists’ or ‘faculty extension professor.’ At Cornell, where I spent the past 13 years, I requested these numbers once … we had lost more than half of the full-time equivalent number of staff at extension faculty positions in that college over the past 15 to 20 years. So, [there is] the worrisome trend of losing the actual people and the positions that represent a commitment to the land-grant mission of being engaged and working with the public.

4.  If these trends continue, what do you think the work and roles of land-grant universities will be in 50 years?  What should they be?

Well, if the worrisome trend … plays out then I think that the work and roles of the land-grant university will just become much, much more distant from the lives of people and ordinary people in communities. … There will be less of a presence and, therefore, less direct relationships and work throughout the counties in states like New York and Wisconsin and the rest of the country. And, therefore, then, I think you’ll see the institution doing almost all of its scientific research either though NSF (National Science Foundation) or NIH (National Institutes of Health) funding through the government or through private sector funding through corporations. So, that’s pretty much what it might be.

The thing that also makes this difficult to do is there’s a lot of potentially drastic changes in the air with new technologies and what’s called MOOCs … that people are now developing at institutions. So, we could well see a future that looks quite a bit different in terms of where teaching happens and how it happens and who the students are. A lot of people are imagining quite different futures right now.

Now, the other side of the equation manages to gain traction and continue, … which is the side that says not just the land-grant system, but actually every sector of higher education, should be looking for ways to become more deeply engaged in working with communities. Not just because it’s a nice thing to do, or some sort of moral exhortation of how we should do it, but because it’s an avenue for improving the work of colleges. Students learn more when they’re engaged in real-world work and have real-world experiences; that’s been well demonstrated. … Being engaged off campuses is an incredibly powerful way to improve the research that scholars do. Not in every field, all the time, with no exceptions, but in many fields, there are leading-edge kinds of research work that can only happen if higher education institutions are working closely with communities and with people and organizations that are off campus.

So, if that future plays out, for the future of the land-grant system, the work involved would be, in the next 50 years, would hopefully not be all that different from … the best examples today. That is, if there is some good teaching happening on campuses. There’s a lot of research happening in laboratories and libraries and archives and things of that sort. There’s also deep relationships with the people in communities off the campuses and lots of the work happening out in communities as well.

When you ask me what they should be, that’s, in my view, what they should be. They should be that synergistic mix of the intellectual work that can be done on campuses and the kind of learning and research and work that can happen in partnerships with communities.

5. In order to accomplish that mission of serving the public good and of filling the “what we should be doing” mission, is it possible that land-grant universities are going to become more supported by private industry and by corporations than by governments in 50 years’ time?

I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait for 50 years.

One of the things that, for example, is said as a kind of joke or cliché at Penn State University in Pennsylvania – which is Pennsylvania’s land-grant, not its only land-grant but its main land-grant, the largest land-grant – is that Penn State is not a state university anymore, it’s a “state-assisted university.” In fact, the state support for Penn State is, I don’t know what their current figure is, but it is well below 20 percent.

So, already, the percentage of financial support for … land-grant institutions … is already at that future where public support is now a fraction of the portfolio.

6. Anything you’d like to add about the future of land-grant universities and what they may look like and the role they may play in the higher education space in 50 years’ time?

Well, I would just say this: I think there is just enormous potential and possibility. The idea of what the land-grant system could be and do, that I’ve discovered in my research, my historical research of the system, is still incredibly relevant and incredibly compelling today. I know many amazing people in the system who are carrying out tremendous work, so I would not want to communicate any despairing sense of disaster that we’ve lost all of the best people and the best things. I think we still have tremendous capacity to make the land-grant mission at its best, the real thing.

But I would also say this: having moved now to a private university, to Syracuse University, which is not a land-grant, and being now the co-director of a national consortium of 100 colleges and universities from all sectors — of community colleges, private, liberal arts, state institutions — I would say that the land-grant system has no license anymore, has no right … or ability to claim that it’s the only one that’s engaged with communities. In fact, some of the non-land-grants are putting the land-grant system to shame with the depth and level and quality of engagement they’ve been pursuing. …

People beyond the land-grant system are, in fact, picking up and performing some of that signature mission work of being engaged with communities. They don’t have what the land-grant system still has, which is that institutionalized extension and experiment station structure, which is still relatively well supported by those three levels of government I mentioned (local, state and federal).

So, I would want to leave with those two points that I think are important parts of thinking about the land-grant today and the land-grant of the future.

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