Monthly Archives: September 2010

Further Reflection on the Future of the Land-Grant Mission

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.

What Will Become of Land-Grant Universities?

I am reminded virtually daily of the monumental changes sweeping across the campuses of Auburn University and other land-grant schools.  I’m reminded of it whenever I encounter a student-driven Land Rover, Lexus, or BMW — needless to say, virtually an hourly occurrence —or pass an Auburn student ambassador valiantly struggling to explain the land-grant function to prospective students.

Sweeping Transformation

Who would have imagined that Auburn and other so-called “people’s universities” — the 70 or so agricultural and mechanical universities established by the Morrill Act of 1862 to lift the farming and working classes into the ranks of the middle classes — would undergo such sweeping transformations in their own right?

A few generations ago, who among the gentrified students of chartered state schools who mercilessly denigrated these schools as cow colleges could have imagined that future students of these institutions would turn out to be as upscale and as worldly as they?

An Increasingly Empty Term?

For someone like me, a longstanding employee and admirer of Cooperative Extension and the land-grant legacy in general, this raises an intriguing, if not troubling, question:  What do all these changes mean for future of the land-grant university concept?

Is land-grant destined to become an endearing but largely empty term carried by schools in much the same way that “Her Majesty’s Ship” is borne by British and some Commonwealth naval vessels — a respectful nod to continuity and tradition but little more than that?

More than Lip Service

University of Minnesota faculty member Bill Gleason explores these questions in a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Gleason believes that the land-grant concept deserves more than just lip service.  He even scoffs at Minnesota’s publicly stated intention in 2004 to transform itself into “one of the top three public research universities in the world within a decade.”

“Land-grant universities should get back to the business of doing what they do best — in particular, teaching at a level sufficient to prepare people in their states to be competitive in the job market — and worry less about becoming world-class public research institutions,” he writes.

Isn’t it enough to prepare ordinary Minnesotans for the challenges of life, even while ensuring that the occasional outlier is fully equipped to take his or her place among this nation’s elite?

“Public education should be the great equalizer, and Minnesota and other land-grant institutions should return to their original land-grant priorities,” he contends.

Centrifugal Forces at Work

I respect Dr. Gleason’s candor and forthrightness.  Yet, I suspect even he would acknowledge the myriad of centrifugal forces that are pulling land-grant universities in the opposite direction.

Many of these influences stem from deeply rooted causes.  From the very beginning of the American Republic  there was the expectation among newly established frontier states that they were as much entitled to the accoutrements of statehood as the original 13 states.  If Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey possessed first-class universities, then, by God, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio were entitled to them too.

Funding Challenges

Funding arguably constitutes the strongest centrifugal force of all.  With steady declines in state funding projected for the foreseeable future, flagship universities, whether state chartered or land-grant, have every incentive to develop honors colleges to attract topnotch talent in the hope that these future entrepreneurs and corporate CEOs will contribute substantially to alumni endowments.

I can’t even begin to relate how the emerging global economy will exert an increasingly centrifugal pull in the future.

Centripetal Forces

Granted, there are centripetal forces at work too.  State funding still accounts for a big share of land-grant university funding.  As Gleason contends, Minnesota, by reaffirming its land-grant university status, could make a strong case for enhanced state funding.

Even so, I’m betting that centrifugal forces ultimately win out.  A kind of evolution within form already is well under way at many of these institutions as they undergo a subtle transformation from historic state land-grant school to globally-engaged technological university.

As I see it, very few centripetal forces remain to draw these institutions back to their land-grant roots.

Two Other Powerful Centrifugal Forces

Two other powerful centrifugal forces in U.S. higher education have been almost entirely overlooked: former state teacher colleges, which, for the most part, now function as regional universities, and two-year community colleges.

Many of these schools already operate community-wide and even regional outreach/Extension programs focused on economic development and social welfare issues.   Some regional universities, including my own alma mater, are even negotiating to acquire many of the applied technical programs that many technological universities desperately want to jettison.

Is it possible that many, if not most, of these land-grant functions will ultimately devolve to these schools, especially as historic land-grant universities shed these traditional roles?

As I see it, that remains an open question.  Still, I’m old enough to realize that no institutional arrangement is sacrosanct, especially in these changing times.

The Hick Factor: The Root Causes

Yesterday, inspired by a reading of one of David Brooks’s recent columns, I raised concerns that America was dealing with a growing national ambivalence about, if not disdain for, practical, as opposed to more abstract, forms of knowledge.

No doubt, the roots of this problem are complex.  While I’m not a social scientist, I suspect they stem from a combination of global economic factors as well as cultural and social trends unfolding in the United States.

Based on my own limited reading, I don’t think this problem will be addressed easily.  As a matter of fact, I think it will present an extraordinarily difficult challenge, not only for those of us in Cooperative Extension and other facets of the land-grant system but also for policymakers, entrepreneurs and other others who have a stake in preserving this nation’s longstanding emphasis on practical knowledge.

Perhaps the most telling example of this challenge in all of its complexity was shared recently by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who reported how these divisions were being played out in many of this nation’s leading college campuses.

Douthat cited a study by Princeton sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford of admissions policies at eight highly selective colleges and universities.

…while most extracurricular activities increase your odds of admission to an elite school, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like high school R.O.T.C., 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America actually works against your chances.

Of course, I’m not implying that this admissions trend reflects some conspiracy among elite colleges to undermine the value Americans have historically placed on practical knowledge.

Even so, if the products of two of this nation’s premier purveyors of practical knowledge, 4-H and FFA, are being denied admission to this nation’s leading colleges and universities and, ultimately, to the leading circles of influence and decision-making, what does this say about our prospects for restoring practical knowledge to a significant standing in American life?

Could this devaluing of practical knowledge also stem from the way elite colleges select applicants?

Writing in the June 1, 2008 issue of The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz, a product of Ivy League schooling, contends that elite universities are now selecting solely for analytical intelligence.   Yet, it seems to me — and I think David Brooks would agree — that practical knowledge, as an attempt to derive practical benefit from scientific discovery, requires as much creative as it does analytical intelligence and, consequently, tends to draw from both hemispheres of the brain.

Simply put, practical knowledge involves a combination of many different kinds of intelligence, with analytical intelligence occupying a prominent place within that combination.

Deresiewicz makes a similar observation.

The existence of multiple forms of intelligence has become a commonplace, but however much elite universities like to sprinkle their incoming classes with a few actors or violinists, they select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic….But social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three other forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite. The “best” are the brightest only in one narrow sense. One needs to wander away from the educational elite to begin to discover this.

Granted, many of the points I’ve outlined above amount to questions — and possibly ill-informed, baseless ones at that.

Even so, I discern an opportunity for groups such as 4-H and FFA, despite the bias directed at them in some elite quarters — an opportunity to rekindle an interest in, if not an enduring passion for, practical knowledge among our young people.

The Return of the Hick Factor and It’s Implications for Extension

Part of our nation’s greatness stems from the fact that it has never erected a high wall of separation between so-called academic and practical knowledge.

Auburn, Clemson, Michigan State, Purdue and Texas A&M universities, all of which started out as agricultural and mechanical institutions but now command topflight rank along with their state-chartered counterparts, are a testament to this longstanding American openness to practical knowledge.

Our British cousins held a similarly high regard for practical knowledge, which perhaps accounts in large measure for why they rose in the 19th century to become the world’s first global economic superpower.

Quoting economic historian Joel Mokyr, New York Times columnist and author David Brooks maintains that Britain’s and later America’s phenomenal economic achievement stemmed from a changed state of mind.

“Because of a series of cultural shifts, technicians started taking scientific knowledge and putting it to practical use.”


To put it another way, Britain and its cultural and political offshoot, the United States, developed a respect, if not passion, for practical knowledge.

Other advanced nations initially did not hold practical knowledge in such high regard, including Germany. Peter Watson, writing in his superb history of intellectual thought, Thought: A History of Ideas from Fire to Freud, described the prevailing disdain for practical knowledge among the educated German upper and middle classes.

Watson cites as a prime example the ambiguous public standing of Max Planck, the physicist who discovered the quantum, the idea that energy comes in small packets, or quanta.

“Despite the fact that his discovery rates as one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time, in Planck’s own family, the humanities were considered a superior form of knowledge to science,” Watson writes. “His cousin, the historian Max Lenz, would jokingly pun that scientists (Naturforsher) were in reality foresters (Naturforster) – or, as he would say, hicks.”

In an earlier piece, I referred to such historical bias against practical knowledge as the “hick factor.”

Ultimately, as Brooks writes, upper-class Britons followed suit, as “the great-great-grandchildren of the empire builders withdrew from commerce, tried to rise above practical knowledge and had more genteel attitudes about how to live.”

It appears that this hick factor, prevalent among 19th century elite Germans and, later, British elites, is gaining a toehold among American in the 21st century – and not just among elites.

“The shift is evident at all levels of society,” Brooks writes. “America’s brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism.”

That raises a disturbing question: Within this rapidly evolving social context, what are the implications for Cooperative Extension and the land-grant system in general?

These land-grant institutions helped elevate knowledge to a preeminent place not only in the United States but throughout the world.

Through tens of thousands of hours of classroom instruction, applied research on thousand acres of cropland, and countless field tours, this system played an indispensable role generating and purveying much of the practical knowledge on which the modern farming system is based.

Equally important, what role, if any, should Extension and other land-grant institution serve in helping restore industry and technical expertise – practical knowledge – to a preeminent place in American life?

Employing Flip-Thinking in Cooperative Extension Work

Karl Fisch, an algebra teacher at Arapahoe High School near Denver, has gone bass-ackward on his students.  Instead of devoting classroom time to lecturing, which has been the way of doing business for as long as there have been classrooms, Fisch is using this time to offer intensive problem-solving and experimenting with concepts.

What happened to the classroom lectures? Fisch is posting them to youtube instead.  Kids are expected to watch the youtube lectures at home in the evening so they will be fully primed for problem-solving and experimenting the next day.

Speaking as an execrable high-school algebra student, the whole concept of lectures at night and problem solving during the day really appeals to me.  Goodness knows, if I had been afforded the same opportunities as a teenager, perhaps I wouldn’t have been derided by my algebra teacher as “the worst student who ever passed through Russellville High School.”

And that’s precisely the point, says visionary and bestselling author Dan Pink, who recently shared this account along with several other notable examples of what he describes as flip-think.   As Pink observes, ideas such as Fisch’s force people to slap their foreheads in astonishment and ask why more schools aren’t doing things this way.

“That’s the power of flipping,” he says.  “It melts calcified thinking and leads to solutions that are simple to envision and implement.”

In this increasingly competitive global knowledge economy, examples of flip-thinking are occurring all around us, Pink says.

For example, U.S. and British book publishers are employing flip-think, publishing paperback editions and even e-books of new, obscure authors instead of risking costly hardcover editions.

The more I experiment with social media, the more astounded I become with flip-thinking’s potential within Cooperative Extension work.

Consider crop tours. For decades, these tours have traditionally included a series of stops, each comprised of brief presentations by subject-matter experts, followed by a quick traipse into the field for closer crop inspection before moving onto the next tour stop.

Up to now, any video associated with the tour, usually recordings of field presentations, were posted days or weeks after the tour.

Here’s an example of flip-thinking: Why not record the presentations a few days in advance, freeing up more time for crop inspection and troubleshooting as well as more direct interaction between growers and subject-matter experts in the field?

The advantages of such an approach are obvious: Growers would be able to view the youtube presentations for as long and as often as they pleased, even as more time was freed up during the actual tour to allow for closer crop inspection and one-to-one interaction with subject-matter experts.

Much of the Master Gardening training likely could be handled the same way, freeing time for more hands-on instruction.

This is only one example among many of how Cooperative Extension longstanding emphasis on high touch could be enhanced through innovative practices.

The aim here is not to undermine or replace the traditional face-to-face interaction that has underscored traditional Extension outreach but to augment it through innovation, namely through more creative use of technology.

Also bear in mind that innovative thinking doesn’t necessarily have to involve a complete flip.  It simply must work to free up time to make work tasks more effective.

I’ll end this by challenging my fellow Extension professionals with the same homework Pink offers his readers:  Tonight after work, come up with at least one process, practice, method or model that will enhance high-touch effects of your personal outreach efforts.

You may be surprised at what you discover.

Creative Destructionism and Cooperative Extension’s Role in It

Recently, a Facebook friend reproved me for my professional affiliation with the Cooperative Extension, specifically for the influential role Extension played in reducing the number family farms in the 20th century.

Cooperative Extension, he wrote, “was created to get farmers off their farms and into factories.”

The end result: the original green revolution – it was even called that, as my friend stressed. With it came the “chemicals and mechanization and the destruction of the family farm to fill jobs and [to] ensure cheap food.”

I won’t argue with that — for that matter, neither would most of my coworkers. As a matter of fact, I’ve been told that my ultimate boss, Auburn University President Jay Gogue, a great admirer of the Cooperative Extension legacy, has offered a somewhat similar interpretation during his tours of county Extension offices.

By propagating the scientific methods that rendered farming considerably more efficient, Extension had a major hand in the formation of the modern farming model, one that embodies the same unrelenting pursuit of efficiency that characterizes modern capitalism in general.

Our cheap food supply is the most tangible expression of this unrelenting quest for efficiency – a fact of which I was reminded a few days ago after purchasing a large chocolate cream pie for slightly more than $5 dollars.

Only a couple of centuries ago – a mere blink of the eye in historical terms – such a luxury food, trimmed with thick dollops of white icing, yet eminently affordable for the masses, would have been far beyond the mental grasp virtually everyone, rich and poor alike. I can only imagine how a poor Irish tenant farmer who spent his entire life subsisting entirely on marginal potatoes, known as lumpers, would have regarded such a thing.

The large, calorie-laden pie, purchased at a mere pittance, is a testament to the effective use of virtually everything modern science and economics have revealed up to now. To be sure, though, operating at this level of efficiency resulted in the effective obsolescence of legions of marginal wheat and dairy farmers — not to mention, bakers.

Just as the market giveth, it taketh away – therein lies the paradox of modern farming and of modern capitalism in general.

The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter coined a remarkable phrase for it: creative destructionism, one of the great insights of modern economical thought.

Destruction is one of the operating costs of market efficiency. In its ruthless quest for efficiency, the market routinely casts off products and practices – and, consequently, people too – once deemed important, if not indispensable, by earlier generations.

Modern farming is no exception.

Call me heartless but, all things considered, I would contend this has been a good thing. After all, cheap food is only one of many tangible benefits that have accompanied the creative destruction associated with modern farming.

As Matt Ridley observes in his latest book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, one of the hallmarks of modern farming, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, staved off the the deaths of millions from mass starvation as supplies of guano, which served as the principal sources of nitrogen in the late 19th and early 20th century, approached exhaustion.

Yet, as Ridley stresses time and again, this only scratches the surface. The improved yields that have accompanied modern farming have also greatly reduced the demand for cropland.

As he observes, if the average yields of 1961 were still commonplace in 1998, an extra 7.9 billion acres of land would have been put to the plow – an area comparable to the entire continent of South America, minus Chile.

Likewise, the more recent adoption of new techniques, such as precision farming, have resulted in drastic reductions in herbicide, pesticide and water use.

New lines of genetically modified crops will soon be available that are not only more resistant to drought and common plant diseases but that are also designed to address serious Third World vitamin and nutrient deficiencies.

Yes, Cooperative Extension played an integral role in all of this. We have been creators as well as destroyers, albeit creative destroyers. Yet, on balance, I believe the material benefits stemming from our century-old involvement in agriculture have served humanity in ways most of us scarcely grasp.

High Touch Will Always Mean Hands-On

A seasoned Extension professional once told me that the mark of a good agricultural Extension agent was the ability to size up a problem on a farm even before the farmer could articulate it.

Yes, we Extension educators take pride in the role we serve as purveyors of research-based knowledge. But from the very beginning of our history, there has always been an intangible, highly nuanced quality associated with our outreach work.

The most successful Extension educators, particularly agricultural and livestock agents, have succeeded because they have invested considerable time observing and interacting closely with the people they serve. In time, this investment produces a singular product: an Extension educator who posses an intuitive graps of his or her clients’ needs.

Dr. Paul Mask, an Alabama Extension administrator, says this is the reason why social media, while an emerging outreach method worthy of adoption, will never fully supplant traditional high-touch Extension outreach methods.

The most successful adopters of social media techniques within Extension are testaments to that fact, Mask says.

They have succeeded because they already have excelled in traditional face-to-face outeach work.

Mask, who started his career as an grain crops specialist working closely with growers, says this remains especially true among agents who work with row-crop farmers and commercial cattle producers.

“As people trying to make a living, these producers want to be assured that Extension agents know what they’re doing – that they are fully in command of their subject matter,” he says.

Mask cites Amy Winstead, an Extension precision agriculture educator in the Tennessee Valley, as one of Extension’s most successful social media adopters. But she has succeeded largely through the contacts she has established through traditional outreach work,he says.

“For most commercial row-crop and livestock producers, the image of an Extension agent sitting behind a desk blogging and tweeting at the exclusion of everything else just doesn’t appeal to them,” Mask says.

But this kind of approach isn’t tenable to start with, he says, because the nature of Extension work involves full engagement with clients.

“In the case of row-crop farming, for example, agents have to be out there helping producers with real-world problems because that’s the only way that they can become fully adept at solving those problems,” Mask says.

“Quite often the solution involves sitting in a combine cab and toubleshooting until the problem is solved.”

One especially valuable role Extension educators have served over the last century is helping farmers and other clients see what is coming down the proverbial pike, Mask says, adding that this kind of insight is acquired only after years of close observation of and interaction with clients.

Mask says he gained an even deeper appreciation for this fact while he worked to introduce precision agricultural techniques to producers beginning in the 1990s.

“In the beginning, precision farming wasn’t on most farmers’ radars, but because of our agents were willing to work one on one with them to underscore the value of it to their farming operation, they quickly grasped its benefits.”

Mask says there is a lesson here for aspiring social media adopters.

“We can augment our outreach efforts with social media, but high touch is high touch.”

“Our most successful social media users have succeeded because they already are high touch,” he says. “Their blogs and other social media products are simply a distillation of all the insights they’ve gained through close interaction with their clients.”