Published on 2013/03/06
The Future of Land-Grant Universities
Land-grant universities have the capacity to ingrain themselves deeper into everyday activities and vital industries across the United States in 10 years’ time by making use of new technologies and networks as they emerge.

Land-grant universities are defined by the foundation on which they were created over 100 years ago. Today, there are more than 100 institutions with this foundation.

So, what differentiates land-grants today from other institutions? What special value do they bring to society? What special impacts do they create for students and stakeholders?  Let me tell you some stories from Michigan State University. Spartan Sagas explain what our students, faculty and alumni are actually doing in the world.  Our 2012 President’s Report tells these stories from a deeper perspective. Land-grant universities are creating new knowledge (through research, for example) and transforming lives (with elements of community engagement and economic impact) both locally and globally.

At a land-grant university such as Michigan State, students are an integral part of the entire system — not only in terms of degree programs and courses, but the co-creation roles they have throughout our systems. This differentiates most land-grant universities today; our systems and the roles students have in them, not just as learners but as participants.

One example of the transformational and research work of land-grant universities can be found in the food system. Land-grants are rooted in agriculture; we are an integral part of the country’s food system. The food system is big and complex — take a look at this diagram. Many land-grants are in every box and circle on this diagram. From family health to natural resources, and from business supply chains to social equity, land-grants are there through their research, academic programs and outreach and extension. More importantly, our students, faculty and alumni are embedded in the connections between the boxes and the circles. Land-grant universities are embedded in information flows and relationships throughout the food system. This is just one example; we could say the same for the human health system and for technology incubation, to name just two more. Our future is strong because of our unique role in big systems and major challenges; we are part of the solution.

However, I also wonder in what ways we can use technology to strengthen our roles. In what ways can technology help us innovate how we co-create new knowledge and engage with people to develop sustainable solutions? The act of course-based teaching and learning is being redefined by technology. No doubt, there are ways in which research will also be redefined by technology. There are new research paradigms, like InnoCentive, new social networks, such as SciVal, and new funding sources, including Kickstarter.

Capitalizing on these methods and tools will strengthen our roles as land-grant universities, enabling us to have an even more visible impact on local and global challenges in 10 years. The systems in which we are embedded — as trusted, integral, problem-solving networks — are what define land-grant universities today. Being deeply engaged in the complex systems and challenges of our times is what makes land-grants different from the other 4,000 or so colleges and universities in the United States today.

If you want to know more about the origins of land-grant institutions and what that means today, I recommend you read The World Grant Ideal, a recent monograph by the President of Michigan State University, arguably the first land-grant.

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Readers Comments

Stephen Gotti 2013/03/06 at 8:56 am

The land-grant model is incredibly old, when we consider the fact that the Morrill Act came into being in the mid-1800s. However, if land-grant institutions are able (and willing) to innovate and adapt to changing societal needs, I believe they will have an important place in the higher education landscape in 10 years’ time.

Frank Gowen 2013/03/06 at 10:12 am

We’re seeing a real need for higher education institutions to become more in tune with market realities and needs, and I agree with Christine that land-grant universities are well equipped for that. As she says, they are already deeply embedded in the complex systems of our country. No doubt they will be able to easily adapt to changing times. In fact, other institutions would do well to look at what they can learn from the land-grant model.

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