I reflected some more last night on the future of the land-grant university mission.
One important point we all should bear in mind: Earlier generations of Americans constructed a remarkably diverse and adaptive higher education system.
I like to think of this system as a rich mosaic, the colors of which change constantly to reflect the evolving social and cultural conditions within the larger society. In most states, this higher educational structure is typically expressed as four tiers: start-chartered schools, such as the universities of Michigan, Texas and Alabama; historic land-grant institutions, such as Auburn, Clemson and Purdue universities; former state teachers colleges now functioning as regional universities, such as Sam Houston State and Western Kentucky universities; and the immense networks of community colleges.
In terms of academic standing, the first two tiers, state-chartered and land-grant institutions, are virtually indistinguishable.
Indeed, regional universities and, to an even greater extent, communities colleges, have assumed much of the role of serving remedial students — a task once readily carried out by land-grant universities.
Likewise, many of these institutions have carried this commitment one step further, not only reaching out to under-served students but also under-served populations in general. That raises the question: As historically land-grant undergo their transformation into academically rigorous technological universities, isn’t it possible, if not likely, that many of their traditional land-grant functions, particularly the ones focused on reaching under-served populations, will devolve to regional institutions?
For that matter, who’s to say that this devolution will be limited only to those programs associated with underserved populations?
As I mentioned in my earlier piece, some regional universities are lobbying to acquire stewardship of some of the applied technical programs that, up to now, have been standard offerings at traditional land-grant universities.
As more of these applied teaching courses are acquired by regional universities, how much longer before similar outreach programs follow?
The increasing disengagement from applied agricultural research at many land-grant universities will only contribute to this trend. A close friend of mine, a writer for a farm publication, informed me yesterday that one of this nation’s premiere land-grant universities is considering outsourcing all of its applied agricultural research. If this critical pillar of the land-grant function crumbles, what will remain to support the rest of the structure?
Granted, it’s not my wish to sow pessimism. As I stressed in my earlier piece, though, I do believe that the centrifugal forces drawing land-grant universities away from their traditional functions are exerting a far more powerful tug than the centripetal forces drawing these institutions back to their historically defined roles.
For that reason alone, I’m betting that the centrifugal forces ultimately prevail.