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Charles W. Fluharty, founder, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, has asserted that bias against rural America is the “last acceptable prejudice” in the country. That assertion is informed by perceptions that people across many sectors of society, including higher education, have widely expressed. Educators contend that the learning difficulties of students from small rural towns are a result of their demographic profile and upbringing.

But that misconception inappropriately places blame on the students’ presumed lack of preparation or drive rather than on the institutions’ misreading of their learning capacity. This prejudice not only has an adverse impact on students from rural towns but also negatively affects the broader rural revitalization efforts that must rely heavily on higher education partnerships.

The belief that urban centers are the only nuclei of modern industry innovation has exacerbated the situation. It has led to the ill-fated practice of imposing urban-centric revitalization models on rural revival and education, deleteriously impacting rural resurgence outcomes. Policy and action leaders across sectors, including higher education, must reduce, even eliminate, the rural-centric prejudice and create pathways to rural recovery that reflect rural attributes and vitality and encompass the highly diverse capacity of rural communities.

According to Hemalata C. Dandekar and Michael Hibbard, for at least five decades, planning practices followed a top-down “expert-driven scientific” paradigm that primarily focused on the impact of industrialism on cities -- ignoring the impact on rural areas. Rural areas were relegated to only serving the growing urban needs through the extraction of natural and human resources. Today, however, a rural resurgence has pulled away from such an approach in favor of locally driven practices that take into account the complexity of rural communities. One such example is to view rural natural resources -- food, lumber, fiber and so forth -- as amenities and assets in economic development and not just as elements to extract to service urban populations. Issues associated with food insecurity, water quality and ecosystem sustainability have also influenced a shift in planning and led to a rise in urban “ruralization.”

Steve Bullock, governor of Montana and chair of the National Governors Association, is one of those leaders. His Good Jobs for all Americans initiative aims to stimulate rural redevelopment by calling on other state leaders to examine new approaches to job creation and to expand systems that give citizens the access they need to education, career opportunities and credentials. He has identified three key success strategies, culminating in a resurgence built around a rejuvenated rural identity with broad education and economic development opportunities that promote creativity and innovation. Of particular note is that the results cited in the initiative's action guide stress the importance of local actors taking the lead on rural resurgence and the addition of rural amenities as part of the plan. This underscores what Dandekar and Hibbard have suggested.

Universities as Stewards of Place

As Bullock and others reinvigorate rural America’s economic-vitality narrative, higher education institutions in rural America must join in this effort. We play a crucial role in the outcomes. Rural-serving institutions such as mine, the State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill (SUNY Cobleskill), have an obligation to refocus our mission to include becoming stewards of place, which for us is the Mohawk Valley region in upstate New York.

Being a steward of place requires an institution to absorb the essence and distinct characteristics of its surrounding communities -- both to enrich those communities and to become enriched by them. The influence must be bi-directional and needs to create capital that eclipses strictly economic prosperity, extending into quality of life.

We at SUNY Cobleskill have a tradition of taking careful stock of our upstate rural New York regional context and assets, which have acted as primers for our 100-plus-year academic enterprise. That has led to a longstanding SUNY Cobleskill mission that “extends theory into practice” through our robust hands-on approach to learning.

The result is a comprehensive curriculum dedicated to applied research that stimulates innovations directly linked to and associated with regional agriculture and technology. Our goal is to heighten the impact on the community’s quality of life. Our vision, which calls “all learners to grow, sustain and renew the world and its citizens,” reflects the dynamic exchange between environmental influences and human ingenuity, which is vital to global sustainability.

Such attention has kept our university’s programs relevant, allowing students to design interventions that enhance well-being or find solutions that avert potentially disastrous natural, economic or humanitarian incidents. For instance, applied psychology students work with faculty members and community leaders to grapple with quality-of-life issues pertinent to rural communities, including rural policy reform. Biotechnology students research water quality in regional lakes and assist faculty members in creating robust plants that can grow in arid climates. Degree programs like Food Systems or Graphic Design capitalize on the indigenous community resources through internships, marketing and retail experiences, and incubator opportunities.

Currently, 30 start-up companies are using our extensive state-of-the art labs to test new products. Organizations such as the U.S. Department of Environmental Conservation and Albany Law School have placed professionals on our campus to work with faculty members, students and community leaders, immersing themselves in our academic enterprise to benefit the surrounding natural and social ecosystems.

As we have continued to tailor these highly engaging and robust programs to align with the complex, evolving and dynamic nature of our rural communities, we’ve realized that the demands and opportunities were far outpacing our ability to sustain quality, systematic partnerships. That has led to the creation of the Institute for Rural Vitality, which can best be explained through the Rural Wealth Framework (pioneered by the Rural Cultural Wealth Lab, and something I encourage you to explore). The institute comprises five centers: Farm and Food Entrepreneurship, Rural Legal and Policy Services, Community Advancement, Business Development, and Arts and Culture. Its resources are fully integrated into the college’s professional development funding, allowing for an expansion of institutional support for faculty research and student internships. Collectively, the centers’ work focuses on community initiatives: applied learning/research and entrepreneurship are fundamental features through which faculty members, students and local leaders develop and implement innovations that align with our region’s revitalization goals.

The two fundamental functions of the institute are to build human capital (as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture in its 2012 publication on Rural Wealth Creation) and to engage in research leading to innovation/entrepreneurship solutions and products. As part of that, we help create and support the “soft infrastructure” through which community revitalization occurs and sustains both efforts and outcomes. Soft infrastructure includes those organizations and agencies that maintain the socio-psychological, health, educational and financial systems of communities. Within a few short years, it has enlivened agribusiness, technology and the workforce, while continuing to put “culture” in agriculture, which we do by fostering relationships with artist residencies, rural policy organizations and social programs.

For instance, every week, our students, faculty and community members with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers gather at the campus day-care center to engage in lively and quality experiences with the preschool children through our Generations Together program. A family-style meal and the accompanying interactions are always the final activities of each session.

Another example: Albany Law School has conducted research in partnership with the institute through our Center for Rural Legal and Policy Services to heighten the awareness of challenges of practicing law in rural upstate New York. As a result of those findings, the New York State Bar Association has created the Rural Justice Task Force to perform follow-up work.

Ignoring the special character of place, as has been the practice of economic revitalization efforts in rural America, has led to the weakening, even deterioration, of such a soft infrastructure. In addition, these debilitating consequences have exacerbated Fluharty’s observation that bias against rural America is the last acceptable prejudice.

In conclusion, rural-serving higher education institutions have a distinct opportunity and obligation to build human capital and engage in wealth-creation efforts in their communities. If we embrace our rural-serving roots, rural may lose its second-class standing and emerge as a vital part of a winning social order.

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