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An 1862 federal law, the Morrill Act, created land-grant universities. In the years since, some land-grant universities have become internationally prominent research universities, and many are crucial to their states. But the American economy and the role of higher education in society have changed dramatically since the Morrill Act. A new book, based on interviews with 27 presidents and chancellors of land-grant universities, considers where the role of these institutions is going.

The book is Land-Grant Universities for the Future: Higher Education for the Public Good (Johns Hopkins University Press). The authors are E. Gordon Gee, the president of West Virginia University, and Stephen M. Gavazzi, a professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University, where Gee was formerly president. (Both Ohio State and WVU are land-grant universities). Gee and Gavazzi responded via email to questions about their book.

Q: Many of the leading universities in the United States are land-grant institutions, but they tend to be described by many as research universities first. Is it problematic that the land-grant identity isn't front and center?

Gee: Yes, this is problematic, first and foremost because this implies that we have vastly overprized the research portion of our tripartite mission. What does this say about our value system, and the worth we assign to teaching and community engagement? Evidence of this skewed way of thinking about our reasons for existence as a land-grant university are on full display when we hear faculty members talk about teaching “load” as if it were some sort of undue burden placed on them to be in contact with students.

Gavazzi: The significant emphasis on research prowess in comparison to the pursuit of excellence in teaching and community engagement was on the minds of most of the 27 land-grant presidents and chancellors that we interviewed for this book. Many of these university leaders talked about judicious efforts to find some sort of balance among the three areas. In contrast, individuals outside of academia who we interviewed were less circumspect. Their comments led us to believe that one of the reasons public support for higher education was on the decline was precisely because we underappreciate the value that citizens place on our teaching and community engagement efforts.

Q: The Morrill Act was enacted at a time when agriculture was central to the economy of every state. Today agriculture (however important it remains) is less visible in American society. Some land-grant universities have renamed colleges of agriculture. Agriculture research is rarely the top category of research at land grants. How have these shifts changed the land-grant identity? Should agriculture be more central than it is at some land grants?

Gavazzi: For starters, we must remember that the Morrill Act placed both agriculture and engineering, then known as the “mechanical arts,” front and center in our original mission. This widened appreciation for where we started allows us to see that the difference between 1862 and 2018 is not so much the field of study -- agriculture or engineering -- as it is the transformation of our nation from a primarily rural population to a predominantly urban one. Meeting the needs of rural America versus the requirements of an urban-dwelling citizenry was very much on the minds of the land-grant university presidents and chancellors we interviewed.

Gee: That said, we must not fail to realize how underappreciated agriculture is today. When I served as the president of the Association of American Universities, I came face-to-face with the fact that the research universities assigned less value to agricultural research in comparison to other scholarly pursuits. I thought this was absurd, and yet it was almost taken for granted that there should be less prestige bestowed upon those faculty members who were engaged in crop science, animal husbandry and so on.

Q: Many public research universities these days position themselves as national or international more than as state institutions. How much does land-grant identity depend on close identification with the state? Is this possible in an era when many states have cut back on appropriations, and when some land grants are focused on increasing out-of-state enrollment?

Gee: This is precisely where the land-grant institutions have all the advantages, and yet more recently have failed to create any sort of meaningful brand identity with the public and with those who are responsible for making decisions about how the public’s money will be spent. The land-grant universities are supposed to be the people’s universities, which means they are the representatives of the best and brightest that each state has to offer to its citizens.

Gavazzi: Again, the stakeholders outside of academia that we interviewed, including state legislators and other higher education policy makers, made it clear to us that they want their land-grant university to solve their state’s most pressing economic and social issues. These stakeholders also were quite unambiguous that any national or international activities should come with a clear explanation about how those efforts are going to help citizens closer to home.

Q: Cooperative extension links land-grant universities' research to communities throughout their states. How has this function changed? Should it change more in the years ahead?

Gavazzi: The Cooperative Extension Services, designated by the Smith-Lever Act to disseminate university-generated knowledge to farms, families and communities, just celebrated its 100th year of existence in 2014. Across that century, the shift from a more rural to a more urban population that we mentioned earlier has put enormous pressures on extension personnel to remain relevant in the lives of most American citizens. The presidents and chancellors we interviewed were aware of newer initiatives being undertaken by extension personnel -- urban agriculture was prominently discussed by many of these senior leaders, for example -- yet there also was a deep-seated recognition that more changes must occur, and quickly.

Gee: Again, we see how the land-grant university holds distinct advantages over other public and private universities, and yet often has not been able to parlay that into any sort of tangible recognition regarding their practicality. Having extension offices in virtually every county of a given state means that land-grant universities have at least one representative who should be waking up every morning and saying to themselves, “What am I going to do today to demonstrate how the people’s university is working to make everyone’s lives better?”

Q: You write that land-grant universities should be more "fiercely land grant." What does that mean?

Gee: In the book, we discuss the immense pressures that universities place upon themselves to be more like each other. This is exactly the opposite of what they should be doing. The higher education system in the United State has been so successful precisely because of its diversity, not despite it. We even see this push for homogeneity affecting religiously based institutions, with the sometimes subtle and other times not-so-subtle message that they should act “less religious.” We think quite the opposite. Catholic universities should be more fiercely Catholic, Baptist universities should be more fiercely Baptist, and so on. Similarly, although there is no formal religion involved, we believe that land-grant universities should be more fiercely land grant in their orientation.

Gavazzi: While we may sound a bit evangelical, this is the same sort of message that was delivered by the Kellogg Commission over 20 years ago when they titled their report “Returning to Our Roots.” It’s a call to get back to our original mission, to place the highest value on meeting the needs of the communities that we were designed to serve.

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