Thursday, April 17, 2014

Land-Grant Universities in the 21st Century

For this week's reading, I chose to search for one that pertained to land-grant universities in the U.S. The many topics we have covered throughout the course have broadly applied to both private and public universities, but our discussions specific to public universities often seemed to include considerations that would have also applied to "land-grant" universities. Thus, for the week on the future of the research university, I thought an article that addressed the future of land-grant institutions in particular would better familiarize us with the unique origins and realities of many public research universities.

I chose this article, "The Land-Grant University in the 21st Century," by Michael V. Martin because it framed its argument for the future of land-grants both in terms of their past and their present, with considerations for the future as well. Martin contends that land-grant universities in the 21st century are still relevant, and in fact "have never been more relevant nor more important." He justifies this with a brief overview of the original intent and legislative history of land-grants. The idea originated with a professor in the mid-1830s campaigning for "state-sponsored universities to serve the 'industrial classes.'" Although the subsequent bill was initially rejected in Congress, it eventually passed in the form of the Morrill Act of 1962. Martin points out that the first Morrill act "represented a profound innovation in higher education for several important reasons," including the facts that 1) it combatted the elitist English model of universities widespread at the time with an eye to serving social and economic development through higher education; 2) it "established a public, federally assisted system," as a counterweight to the many "private, church-sponsored institutions"; 3) Congress used federal lands instead of federal funds "to encourage states to accept the land-grant character"; and 4) they had a primary focus on "liberal and practical education of the industrial classes."

These features and accomplishments of the initial law were expanded as Congress introduced additional laws supplanting the number and nature of land-grants. For example, the 1887 Hatch Act "added the charge to conduct research and experimentation in the public interest to the land-grant mission." This, Martin says, "in effect, gave rise to the research universities of today," and "further established the role of government in stimulating economic growth." Other laws included the Second Morrill Act of 1890, which established the system of historically black universities, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which directed land grants to bring the universities to state citizens through extension services, and, finally, a 1994 act that "targeted access to higher education by chartering and funding 29 tribal land-grant colleges." These many developments show both the long history and multifold purposes of land grants, which Martin argues is proof of their inherently "non-traditional" function in higher education, one that can inform land grant leaders today as they contend with changing socio-economic realities.

The second part of this compact article features five "significant challenges" that land grants face, according to Martin. These include that 1) land-grant do not comprise a system "in the functional meaning of the term," so that they essentially operate as disconnected, stand-alone institutions that could benefit from mutual engagement and shared "programmatic resources and political influence"; 2) too many focus on inputs like competitive federal funds or good students and minimize outputs or accomplishments related to their original missions; 3) they suffer from a general public distrust of science which dampers social support for their research missions; 4) they resist "mission creep" by other public organizations for the most part, which minimizes the possibility for cooperative partnerships; and 5) they face daunting new fiscal realities mostly based on political unpopularity for flexible, tax-based funding. These challenges are important for considering the constraints as well as the potential areas of improvement for land-grant universities.

As a student of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I always use UW as the case study of topics in this class, and this one seems especially relevant. Many of the challenges Martin delineates figure prominently in UW news and campus debates. To be sure, UW puts a high priority on federal research funding and national rankings, which is in part connected to the fiscal realities it must face. The UW seems to be attempting to counteract the public distrust of science in some ways, for example through the community openness and educational programming of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. However, from my perspective (which is admittedly biased, anecdotal and under-informed), I see the UW as succeeding in a number of ways that Martin postulates land grants have struggled. Although institutional competition and stringent fiscal realities have largely prevented it from significantly contributing to the systematization of land grants across the country, UW places great priority on its outputs, particularly in pursuit of the Wisconsin Idea that drives (at least rhetorically) so many of its endeavors. Despite its frequent self-comparison with elite institutions, and what some might call a tuition level inaccessible to the many in the state, UW research is inarguably oriented toward potential benefits to the state, especially in the agricultural realm, and UW is making significant attempts to expand life-long learning programming and distance education online for the "time- and/or place-bound citizens" whom it is very aware can benefit from a land-grant university education.

My question are:

1) What do you see as other ways in which the UW's actions counter Martin's claims?
2) Given the new fiscal realities, could land grants ever truly hope to form a unified, sharing system?
3) Martin seems to hint that competition with "elite" schools in some ways detracts from a land-grants' original mission. To what degree/ extent is this a good/ bad/ inevitable thing?

1 comment:

patrice kohl said...

I'm a bit surprised that Martin lists distrust in science as an important challenge land-grant universities face. While faith in science and scientists might not be what it was 60+ years ago, we still have an awful lot of faith in science and scientists. Certainly more than in the media or politicians.