Defining a Great University
When I was a student, then faculty member, then administrator at private universities — a mere 40+ years — land-grant institutions were not front and center in my consciousness. Having now moved to a land-grant institution, I have concluded they are one of the most precious if not always most highly visible resources this nation has.
Our nation needs to broaden what "greatness" in a university means. At the very least, we need to expand our conception of greatness to a multidimensional notion, not just a notion of unidimensional rankings as appear in certain magazines. Land-grant institutions, contrary to some popular beliefs, are not merely about agricultural development, but rather, about changing the world in a positive, meaningful, and enduring way. Land-grant institutions perhaps best represent the very core of what greatness means in American society -- namely, equal opportunity for all and, through it, the chance to make our society and the world a better place in which to live.
Land-grant institutions are not, for the most part, perceived as being among the most "elite" universities of the nation, although there are exceptions. Yet, they accomplish some things that are truly extraordinary.
First, whereas the most selective institutions in the country are highly focused on entry value -- seeking students with the highest grades, test scores, and high-school records of "extracurricular activities" -- land-grant institutions typically are particularly focused on "value added" -- producing the future leaders who make the world a better place. Typically, land-grant institutions willingly and even gladly will take students with a wider range of grades and test scores because their mission is to provide access, not to restrict entry. A necessary qualification, of course, is that the students admitted are able to do the work, either upon admission or with remediation and enrichment. Land-grant institutions generally have honors programs, but often the focus is not just on how academically smart you are, but on how much of your smartness you can give back to the world. What is important in a land-grant institution is developing future ethical leaders who will enrich their communities and their societies, in whatever way.
The most selective institutions, of course, are also concerned about adding value. But their admissions numbers, with selectivity rates often in the single digits, may result in the message to many students that they may be good, but not quite good enough. Ratings such as those of U.S. News & World Report reward institutions that reject lots of applicants but thereby are not fully consistent with the land-grant mission. The game becomes somewhat perverse: get lots of applicants so you can reject them to prove how exclusive you are as an institution. In land-grant institutions, providing access is especially important for students from low-opportunity households whose only chance to go to college may be at the land-grant university. Often, their education and socialization have provided them with only minimal scaffolding for a college education.
Second, graduation from a land-grant may not always give students the same level of brand equity as they would obtain at the most selective institutions, although there are many employers who are impressed with the initiative and hard work that so many students from land-grant institutions are prepared to offer. The land-grant diploma is a ticket to improve yourself sufficiently that so that later you will be in a position to prove your worth. It has proud brand equity. Usually, the student’s initial job placement will be determined by accomplishments more than by the brand equity of the school that the student attended. It will be up to the student, in the American tradition, to raise him- or herself by the bootstraps. At some future time, perhaps, members of our society will realize more and more the extraordinary value that may be hidden behind the land-grant diploma.
Third, in admissions, the most selective institutions tend to be organized around a relatively fixed notion of human abilities and skills. Requiring sky-high SATs and ACTs make sense as important (although not exclusive) bases of admission only if one believes that they measure relatively fixed traits that project the future potential of the applicant. If abilities are highly modifiable, in contrast, then such test scores assess potentials largely at certain intervals in time and one can look at the college or university as providing a "zone of potential development" to help students use the ability levels they are at as starting points, not just as ending points. From the point of view of the land-grant mission, access provides a way for students to achieve the equal opportunity our society promises. Abilities are indeed modifiable so the institution can help each student reach the outer level of those abilities--to translate abilities into competencies and competencies into expertise.
Fourth, land-grant institutions tend to have a broad sense of what abilities are -- these institutions are about admitting people who will make the difference to the state and the society that was embodied by the principles of the Morrill Act. Land-grant institutions typically require standardized test scores, but not at the levels required by elite colleges. In our society, in part as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act, we place so much emphasis on narrow abilities and knowledge that often students who are the "best" academically have had little incentive to develop the emotional intelligence, practical intelligence, and wisdom-based skills that are needed to lead the institutions of society. Hence one can end up with particular leaders who were educated at elite institutions -- who are very smart in an SAT sense -- and then sometimes prove unable to connect with the rest of the population and who create financial and ethical messes because their analytical skills were never adequately complemented by the creative, practical, and wisdom-based skills they need truly to succeed as leaders.
Fifth, evaluation of scholarship and research takes on a particular cast in a land-grant institution. All institutions are, or at least should be, pleased when a scholar publishes in the journals with the best reputation and citation rate. But in many private institutions, it matters little or not at all whether the work has any implications of the betterment of the state and society, not only in the short run, but even in the long run. Sometimes, work that has implications for the betterment of society actually is viewed with suspicion. The result is a kind of curious disconnection between the university and the society. In a land-grant institution, traditional scholarly quality still matters, but work that gives back to society receives especial plaudits. It thus becomes easier for state legislatures and the people of a state to see why research is important to them, not merely to the advancement of individual researchers’ scholarly careers.
Sixth, service and outreach have a have a particular meaning in a land-grant institution. In private institutions, research, teaching, and service all count toward promotion and tenure, but often, service is in last place in this triad. In a land-grant institution, service is more integrated into the fabric of teaching and research. Service is the reason for being of the land-grant institution, so service learning, research with potential applications, and outreach are intrinsic to its mission.
Finally, in the land-grant institution, the emphasis on give-back leads to the centrality of ethical leadership and wisdom as the core values of the learning experience. “Smartness” is valued, but as a means of giving back. Wisdom is the use of one’s smartness and knowledge for a common good through the infusion of positive ethical values, and because the land-grant institution must give back to the state and the country in order to fulfill its mission, its graduates cannot be viewed as truly successful according to the mission of the college or university unless they embody this ideal.
Whereas some of us may think of land-grant institutions as needing to emulate the most elite institutions, perhaps these elite institutions would benefit as much or more from adopting some of the land-grant values. As our society becomes ever more socially and economically stratified and the middle class vanishes, with high correlations between educational opportunities and socioeconomic status, we have an obligation, as a society, to ask whether things are going where we want them to go. What kinds of leaders do we want to develop? Is it possible that the huge emphasis on memory and analytical skills reflected by tests such as the SAT and ACT, and embodied in college-admissions processes, are having effects opposite to what we as a society might hope for? Are we producing leaders who are analytically adept but who fail in a wise and emotionally connected way to engage deeply with the crises our society currently is facing? Do we want a society in which we care more about how narrowly smart people are than about how wise and ethical they are? Land-grant institutions in many ways reflect the ideals of the American dream. They have a unique role in helping to achieve that dream that is not being captured by magazine ratings based on narrow criteria that have led our society to a precipice.
Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president and professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University. He is a former president of the American Psychological Association and is president of the International Association for Cognitive Education and Psychology.