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'Precipice or Crossroads?'

June 22, 2012

The land-grant universities of the United States are this year celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Act, which not only led to the creation of many of the universities, but arguably was instrumental in the development of public higher education broadly. A new book, Precipice or Crossroads? Where America's Great Public Universities Stand and Where They Are Going Midway Through Their Second Century (State University of New York Press), features essays related to public universities' history and current challenges. Essays mix the history of the universities with questions about their financing, their education and research missions, and their role in the world. The editors of the collection are Daniel Mark Fogel, a professor of English and former president of the University of Vermont, and Elizabeth Malson-Huddle, a lecturer in English at the university. Fogel responded via e-mail to questions about the book's essays and themes:

Q: What do you consider the most significant features of the Morrill Act of 1862 in terms of how public higher education was promoted in the United States?

A: The Morrill Act set the paradigm for public higher education in America. It reshaped existing institutions and set in motion the creation of new ones. In the depths of the worst crisis in our history, it was a signal moment in the building of the nation. It drove curricular transformation, elevating practical studies, especially agriculture and engineering, as essential and central additions to — not replacements for — what American colleges had taught previously (classics, literature, theology).

It did so for the benefit of ordinary people, the "industrial classes," who by and large had had little or no access to higher education: "the leading object shall be," the act reads, "without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life." The public purpose of higher education was thus forged in the Morrill Act, based on a belief that value would accrue not only to the citizens who benefited from the chance to study in the land-grant colleges but also to their states, their regions, and the nation in building agriculture, industry, know-how, and what some like to call "human capital."

The democratic implications of the act were amplified in the second Morrill Act of 1890, which insisted that postsecondary opportunity be extended to African Americans in states where the original land-grant schools were segregated. Moreover, the 1862 Act, which might have federalized higher education, instead confirmed the decision of the nation’s founders not to establish a national university, leaving the curriculum, management, and primary funding responsibilities to the states ("in such manner as the legislatures of the states may respectively prescribe"). The act thus promoted a distinguishing feature of American public higher education, its decentralization, a key to its strength and its genius. The ramifications over the last 150 years of all of these features of the act are hard to exaggerate. As I observe in Precipice or Crossroads?, for example, the GI Bill may be considered a secondary effect of the act, since without the capacity created by the state universities we never could have absorbed the huge influx of students after 1945, taking a nation that had gone to war with only 7 percent of its people studying beyond high school to 45 percent by 1960 and to over 70 percent in 2009.

Today, public research universities educate some 85 percent of the students who receive bachelor’s degrees at all American research universities, and 70 percent of all graduate students; perform more than 60 percent of the nation’s academic R &D; and award more than 50 percent of the doctorates in 11 of 13 disciplines the secretary of education identified in 2008 as national needs categories, including between 60 and 80 percent in computer and information sciences, engineering, foreign languages and linguistics, mathematics and statistics, and physical sciences. Take a bow, Justin Morrill.

Q: Do you think American higher education developed in different ways than, say, European higher education because of the land-grant movement?

A: As noted, the act reinforced the decentralized (non-federalized) character of American higher education, a major distinction between our "system" and systems in other countries, including the highly centralized postsecondary systems in Europe. The land-grant movement, moreover, coincided with, and was a powerful element in, the evolution of the American research university as a hybrid of the English model of residential undergraduate education and the Germanic model of research married to graduate education. Arguably, the two greatest experiments that determined the emergent shape of the modern American research university were Daniel Coit Gilman’s at Johns Hopkins University (founded 1876) and Andrew Dickson White’s at Cornell University (founded 1865). One of those two, Cornell, was founded as a land grant, and its founder’s intention, democratizing with respect to access and comprehensive with respect to curricula, is encapsulated in an institutional motto deeply resonant with the ethos of Justin Smith Morrill and the intent of the Morrill Act, Ezra Cornell’s "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study." More generally, the mass nature of American higher education without question has drawn impetus, and built capacity, from the land-grant movement. As Cornell wrote, "any person," not just a white male member of the elite, and "any study," not just the classical curriculum of America’s early colleges.

Q: At many land-grant universities, even those with outstanding agriculture colleges and extension services, agriculture is less central today than it was in the era when those institutions were founded. How significant is this shift?

A: Well, here are four observations, partially against the grain of the question. First, in Justin Morrill’s own state, the University of Vermont (chartered 1791) accepted the land-grant designation in 1865 but did not appoint any agricultural faculty or grant any agriculture degrees for a quarter of a century. At Cornell, founded as a land-grant in 1865, the trustees were initially hostile to agriculture, and the College of Agriculture was not created, with a very small faculty, until 1888 (designated the New York State College of Agriculture only in 1904). So the agricultural component wasn’t always big or central at first, and it grew — as did many of the institutions — only slowly. Second, in 1900, well over half the population lived on farms and in rural areas — 41 percent worked in the agricultural sector — and agriculture was a huge component of gross domestic product (GDP). Today, agriculture, though far more productive per acre than in 1900 — largely due to land-grant based research and innovation — represents well under 2 percent of GDP.

But the great agriculture colleges are larger and more productive of graduates and research than they were in earlier periods. In absolute terms, agriculture colleges have more often than not waxed, not waned. Third, centrality is another question, but it makes sense — and is consistent with the land-grant mission broadly conceived — that when agriculture and manufacturing were the mainstays of the economy, agriculture and the mechanical arts (engineering) took center stage, with agriculture yielding that place over time, despite its impressive growth, to engineering, the physical sciences, the biomedical sciences, and information technology, among other disciplines. And, fourth, even so, agriculture at our land-grant institutions remains extraordinarily important to most of the institutions, their regions, and the world — and, as President Peter McPherson of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities points out in the foreword to Precipice or Crossroads, nearly everyone agrees that it is absolutely necessary to double food production by 2050 or "food prices at home and abroad will spike" well before that date, "and the world will be even less safe for us than today."

Q: Can land-grant (and other public research universities) fulfill their missions when their state support drops below 10 percent of their budgets?

A: Without question the mission of these schools that do so much to build the human resources, prosperity, and competitiveness of the nation is at risk. Ergo, so is the nation. The reduction in state support is the chief threat, but other factors are in play as well, including the underfunding by granting agencies of the indirect costs of research (forcing universities to shift those costs to students and to patients in their healthcare systems). The most prestigious public research universities will soldier on despite sharply declining public support, but only by revising their missions away from the land-grant ideal of access and affordability. The Michigans and Berkeleys, that is, can compensate for state cuts by replacing resident students with revenue-rich non-residents, including many from other nations; but they can only do so by eroding or outright abandoning the historic mission of serving as portals to opportunity for resident students from all walks of life and as engines for developing the capacities and talents of the American people.

Consider that the pre-eminent public university system in the world, the University of California, has four campuses (Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD, and UC-Davis) each one of which has more Pell Grant recipients than all eight Ivy League schools combined. As tuitions rise along with non-resident enrollment (tuition was up 21 percent at the University of California last year, after a 23 percent cut in state funding), the number of low-income resident students on these campuses can only decline. Meanwhile, the middle class in California is already being squeezed out: in the last 10 years, middle-income enrollment in the University of California has declined at nearly twice the rate of California middle-income households.

So, as a result of the drop in state support, even the public universities best positioned to be competitive for students in the global higher education marketplace are compelled to compromise their historic mission of serving and building American democracy. And the majority of public research universities that are less well positioned may simply be unable to sustain across the board — with respect to educational access and also to their research and service functions — their missions as research universities. Many of those that survive may do so primarily as undergraduate technological and vocational schools, with master’s programs in professional curriculums. It is regrettable and sadly ironic that a period of destructive disinvestment in U.S. public research universities should coincide with a period in which other nations have stepped up targeted investment in their universities in order to emulate the American record of building higher education as the key driver of national prosperity, well-being, and competitiveness.

Q: Your chapter in Precipice or Crossroads is about the state of the arts and humanities in public research universities. How would you evaluate their health?

A: The arts, the humanities, and also the classical social sciences are all suffering from the sheer utilitarian pressures of the times, intensified by the recession. Outside the universities, and increasingly inside them as well, support for instructional and research programs is tied to economic development and vocational training. The humanities are far more likely than the sciences and engineering, moreover, to become the domain of low-paid contingent faculty working without benefits or the expectation of doing scholarship, and the recurrent employment crises in fields like history, English, and the foreign languages only exacerbate those trends, making new Ph.D.s easy victims of destructive changes in faculty employment practices.

And I would caution our colleagues in science and engineering that subordination of the purposes of higher education to those of governments seeking economic growth is in the long run a threat to the STEM disciplines themselves, even though those disciplines are highly valued as economic drivers. For while STEM takes center stage in an age of philistine utilitarianism, basic scientific research for which applications are not readily apparent has the potential to be marginalized no less than disinterested scholarship in the humanities. Our missions in teaching and scholarship (that basic duo that it was the American genius to combine when the modern research university emerged on these shores after the Civil War as a marriage of the English and Germanic models) can only suffer when our disciplines are reduced to their immediate monetary benefits and when we and our students are reduced to being economic production units, and that is no less true for the STEM fields than for the arts and humanities. As that reductive trend intensifies, our humanity and democracy itself are in grave peril, as Martha Nussbaum has so eloquently argued in her book Not for Profit.

That is why I say in my chapter of Precipice or Crossroads? that the arts and the humanities are the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the academy. Justin Morrill recognized that a central mission of the institutions he sought to catalyze through the Morrill Act was the "liberal education" of the "industrial classes" in "all the offices ... of peace and war" (as Morrill said, quoting John Milton, on the 25th anniversary of the act). And so, once again, take a bow, Justin Morrill.

 

 

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