Renewal of the Land Grant Idea for State Universities: A Successful Vision for 2010
The Morrill Act of 1862 ( : http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=33 ) defined the three-fold mission of public land grant universities: educate the mainstream of the state, enhance economic development in the state, and advance social progress in the state. In most states, the land grant institutions were the first public research universities. They were launched to provide “a liberal, practical education to members of the working class”. As other public research universities were established, these also embraced that three-fold mission, and that three-fold mission has remained constant and is present in the mission statements of the vast majority of public research universities today But over the last 50 years, Universities have shifted away from a state focus; following is a summary of the shift.
A The First Hundred Years
In the later half of the 1800’s and throughout the first half of the 1900’s, mainstream America lived in rural areas, the economy was rooted in agriculture and mining, and social issues were rural and family issues. And, not surprisingly, the original land grant institutions were located in the heart of rural areas, often the heart of the farm country, in most states. Examples are: Lincoln, Nebraska; Columbia, Missouri; Manhattan, Kansas; Ames, Iowa; Stillwater, Oklahoma; Tucson, Arizona; Gainesville, Florida; Athens, Georgia; State College, Pennsylvania, College Station, Texas; Blacksburg, Virginia; and Lansing, Michigan.
During this time, public universities carried out their three fold mission in a tightly linked fashion with their state constituents. A picture of those linkages follows.
1. Educate mainstream America. Mainstream America, during this one hundred years, lived primarily in rural areas, and “mainstream” (as far as the American public was concerned) meant white men; at its most basic, the mainstream as applied to public higher education meant farm boys. The young white men had good educational backgrounds from their K-12 experience and were generally admitted to the state’s public university. And, many studied in practical professions---the agricultural sciences, agricultural engineering, mining engineering, geological engineering or other forms of engineering. Women and minorities were simply not conceptualized as mainstream and were not viewed as prospective students. The rural location worked beautifully.
2. Enhance economic development. Economic development during this one hundred years, for most states, meant development of the agricultural and mining economy. Opportunities for economic development were primarily associated with agriculture, mostly family farms, and the extraction of oil, gas, and mineral resources from the state’s lands. The goal was to enhance food and fiber productivity and natural resource extraction rates. Economic development in the state was linked tightly to the public universities through the agricultural and mining extension systems. Extension agents worked with farmers to identify problems on the family farm, problems that inhibited crop production or animal health and productivity. The agents chronicled and communicated these problems to the research faculty back on the campus, who, in turn, worked on solutions. The agents took the proposed solutions back to the farmers who were eager to test them and provide feedback to the researcher. Again the rural location worked beautifully.
3. Advance social progress The issues associated with social progress were frequently farm family and rural issues and human health issues. Applied research on many social issues was carried out by policy and social science faculty, often in the Home Economics Divisions of the Colleges of Agriculture and also linked through extension offices to the rural communities. Schools of Medicine emerged within these universities to train physicians, provide health care, and carry out research. Again, the rural locations worked well. But the patient base is now in cities and rural medical schools struggle to have the clientele to support the specialties needed to train physicians well.
B. The Next 50 years
Following World War II, national policy shifted in ways that caused the state public universities to disengage from their state constituents in all three of their mission areas.
1. Educating Mainstream America: what changed?
First, the GI Bill made public higher education available to veterans. Veterans were defined by national policy as mainstream. Universities accepted these men as mainstream, but perhaps foreshadowing what was to come, many university presidents were opposed to admission of the GI’s to their institutions, often viewing them as not prepared and potentially disruptive. Yet, these individuals were coming home to develop lives in that very state, become productive citizens in that state, and pay state taxes.
Secondly, the Civil Rights movement and to a lesser extent, the women’s movement, of the 1960’s redefined mainstream America. Public universities responded to the women’s movement as the growth in women (primarily white) in universities skyrocketed. Effective responses to the Civil Rights movement proved harder. Most public universities worked hard to develop pipelines and programs aimed at increasing enrollment of minority students. Data on the numbers of minority students and faculty in public research universities today suggest, however, that the success rates of these programs are inconsistent and highly variable. Universities blame the K-12 systems from which the students come yet are generally reticent to accept responsibility for their own graduates who are the teachers and leaders in those systems. They also often view supplemental education for these students as inappropriate for their institutional mission. In part in response to this change in the mainstream, community colleges grew exponentially throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. Yet most public research universities ( California being a notable exception) have generally been unwilling to develop productive articulation agreements with community colleges.
Thirdly, the general education curriculum as well as the perception of the liberal arts shifted as demand for subject matter on non-western philosophies and cultural contexts grew. And, the general education curriculum evolved into a hodgepodge of courses from which the students could choose with little attention to intellectual integration. Both students and parents became dissatisfied.
Finally, by now the mainstream lived primarily in cities and was not served adequately by the rural university.
2. Enhancing Economic Development: What Changed?
After World War II, the federal government saw and embraced the connection between research in science and engineering and economic development, national security and, later, human health. In 1944 President Roosevelt asked Vannevar Bush, who was Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, to make recommendations on the application of “lessons learned” from World War II to civilian, peace-time activities. In 1945, Dr. Bush submitted Science, the Endless Frontier to the President. This proposal caused the National Science Foundation to be founded and is also credited with the recognition among the mission oriented agencies such as DOD that both basic and applied research would pay big dividends both to their agency and to the U.S. economy. With the growth in the research budgets of the federal agencies, faculty and university administrators recognized this new source of marginal dollars and responded aggressively with proposals to acquire their share. These federal research dollars, won competitively by the faculty, paid part of the salaries of the science and engineering faculty, paid for graduate students in science and engineering, and carried with them indirect cost dollars which subsidized university budgets generally for technology, libraries, the operations and maintenance of new research buildings, and research administration. The results have been spectacularly successful for the nation. Like any industry, universities directed their attention to serving new markets. But, as they the increasingly served the federal market rather than the state, the link to the state was further weakened. The science and engineering faculty in the state’s university were working on national issues, not state issues. Today few faculty work on state issues and, in many parts of the universities, such work is viewed as not prestigious and is not valued by colleagues who review faculty for promotion.
3. Advancing social progress: what changed?
Like research in science and engineering, most of the social issues studied by research faculty became national issues. But, probably more importantly, applied research -- policy research applied to real local and state issues -- was not valued by the departments. Faculty promotions were contingent on “pure”, not applied thinking and thinking that fell neatly into disciplinary boundaries, not interdisciplinary thinking carried out by research teams.
Finally, by the latter half of the 1900’s, mainstream America lived in cities, not on farms; economic development opportunities were in cities where business and industry were growing, and certainly the social issues that needed addressing by researchers were manifest primarily in cities. The rural location of many of the public research universities no longer worked as well. While states responded, in part, by establishing public research universities in their cities, these had difficulty competing for state resources. Moreover, the equivalent of agricultural extension (as business and industry extension or urban issue extension) never evolved. The original research institution mostly in more rural locations, were now also the largest, those with the Division I football teams and those with the most alumnae in the state legislature. In States with a system structure, system presidents, even if inclined to provide incentives for development of the urban campuses, found it impossible to do so, in the face of declining state resources and in a context in which the entire system was under-funded. To some extent the situation is a classic market problem: declining service to a vital customer (the state) causes declining political support from that customer (in this case the state) which produces declining revenue which makes the changes that would enhance state support extraordinarily difficult to bring about.
For all of this movement away from a state focus, nearly everyone still agrees that public research universities are extraordinarily successful and are still the envy of the world. And, the results produced by the research faculty in these universities for the nation’s economy, security, and health are viewed as stellar.
In short, the public research universities have been slow to respond to the mainstream populations in the state, which now reside in cities and are multi-ethnic. The universities turned away from their states to serve their federal customers in the research enterprise. And, the equivalent of the agricultural extension services with the businesses, industries, non-profits, and local government did not develop. The shift to the federal research customer and inattention to population and economic changes in the state are, in my view, a significant causal factor in the decline in state financial support for public research universities.
“You can’t have it both ways”. Universities may need to accept that state support will continue to decline or they may need to serve, in a substantially enhanced fashion, the state constituent. I prefer the latter and I believe it will produce better research and better learning for students. The state universities that engage with their states as their states are connected to America’s agenda, sharing responsibility for that agenda, provide the new model for America—the renewal of the land grant vision.