Category Archives: Land-Grant University

Post-Morrill America — and What It Means for Extension

Justin Smith Morrill, father of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, scarcely envisioned the technological world that would be secured largely through his efforts.The thought just occurred to me yesterday — and a sobering one at that: We Americans have all been Morillized.

As a matter of fact, all of us have been Morrillized to such a degree that we now live in a post-Morrill nation.

Welcome to post-Morrill America.

If you recall your history, the purpose of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862 was to improve the standard of living in the various American states and, ultimately, the nation as a whole by providing the laboring classes with education in the practical arts.

I would contend that Justin Smith Morrill’s vision has exceeded beyond measure and in ways he scarcely considered at the time.   To be sure, not everyone has ascended to the ranks of the middle class. Not everyone possesses a college education.  Even so, the highly technological world that to a significant degree grew out of the Morrill Act has placed all of these practical arts at the fingertips of virtually every individual in this nation.

One of my colleagues, NDSU Extension’s Bob Bertsch, superbly illustrated this recently in his departmental weblog, “The Winnowing Oar,” with a link and accompanying comments about a 45-year-old paper mill worker named Frank Kovacs, who once dreamed of becoming an astrophysicist.  Taxing college math courses thwarted this dream, but this didn’t stop Kovacs from building his own planetarium in his free time — what he describes to visitors as the “world’s largest rolling, mechanical, globe planetarium.”

Kovacs is now an educator with his own self-constructed learning facility.

Bob is right to point out the immense significance behind one of Kovacs’s statements: “To be a planetarium director you need college, but if you build your own, you can run it!”

If any statement speaks volumes about the post-Morrill world in which we live, it is that one.  In terms of knowledge empowerment, people no longer have to wait on someone else.

As Bob so aptly describes it, “Stepping on a college campus or attending a workshop are not the only ways to pursue an education.”

Frank Kovacs has demonstrated that fact.

In a manner of speaking, all this Morrillizing has helped create a technological order in which people are now fully capable of empowering themselves.

I contend that this reality presents Extension with a fascinating question: What is our purpose in a post-Morrill world?

We live in a drastically altered knowledge landscape, one that is flat. To a significant degree, the flat world is one that Justin Smith Morrill made.

We should give him his due — for that matter, we should give ourselves ample credit for the indispensable role we served in Morrillizing America.

However, post-Morrillization presents us with a new set of challenge perhaps best expressed by this question: Where do we go from here?

We should start by reflecting on the most obvious effect of post-Morrillization: Americans are now fully equipped to empower themselves.

Yes, we remain an agency of empowerment but not in the way we were in the past.  Back to that rather unwieldy neologism: contextualizer.   In the future, we will empower people by providing them with deeper, more enriched learning contexts.  In time, we will learn that these contexts are best secured within social networks — networks that are open, responsive and dense enough to ensure the most optimal levels of enrichment.

We must construct nothing less than a new outreach model — in a manner of speaking, a post-Morrill outreach model.

Granted, we have our work cut out for us — or, as farmers would say, we have a “long row to hoe.”

Even so, I, for one, am convinced that our history and experiences uniquely equip us to undertake this transformation.

One thing is certain: Despite these challenges, post-Morrillization is no cause for demoralization.

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Extension Lessons from Joe Friday

Joe Friday of Dragnet fame: I couldn’t get enough of the guy — or his unfailing partner, Bill Gannon — growing up.

I still chuckle a bit recalling those brass-tacks morality lessons Friday (portrayed by Jack Webb) and Gannon (played by Harry Morgan) freely imparted to whatever social malcontents they were dealing with at the time.

One of their most memorable appeals was served up in The Big Departure, an episode that first aired in March 7, 1968, about four aspiring teenagers who engage in petty larceny of local businesses to finance and provision their own anti-materialistic, utopian country on one of the islands off the California Coast.

In response to one teenager’s contention that they didn’t understand, Friday and Gannon serve a few choice words about how much better he and his collaborators fared in comparison to earlier generations.

“More people are living better right here than anywhere else ever before in history,” Friday says.

“You’re taller, stronger, healthier and better educated — and you’ll live longer than the last generation, and we don’t think that’s altogether bad,” Gannon adds, also pointing out to the kids that none of them had likely seen a quarantine sign in their neighbors’ door warning about diphtheria, scarlet fever or whooping cough.

“Probably none of your classmates are crippled with polio,” he adds.  “You don’t see many mastoid scars anymore.”

To be sure, this sort of optimism would strike many 21st century Americans as hidebound, if not threadbare.  In the midst of recent history’s longest running economic crisis, coupled with a seemingly intractable energy impasse, frustration and resignation seem to have trumped optimism.

Still, I think the two TV cops strike at an essential truth not only for the 60s but also for today: Scientific achievement has carried us a long way, and it will likely carry us an even longer way in the future.

While few advocate their own starter countries, plenty of technological naysayers remain in this century heaping scorn on practices that have secured all of us immense comfort and efficiency.

At the top of the list of these practices: scientific farming methods — yes, those very methods that have been promoted by Extension agents and specialists and other land-grant personnel for more than a century.

To be sure, these farming methods have created one of the most diverse, interdependent economic sectors in the world — a fact that causes some farm critics extreme consternation.

Yet, as Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, stresses, the interdependence and trade that has followed the adoption of these practices have ensured that all of us are immensely better fed and healthier than our 18th century forebears.

As an example, he compares the trebling of wheat prices that occurred between 2006 and 2008 to a similar price hike that occurred from 1315 to 1318.

During the early 14th century, when Europe was sparsely populated, farming was entirely organic and food miles were short, mass starvation and even outbreaks of cannibalism ensued.  Indeed, until the advent of railways, it was cheaper for people to become refugees than to pay the steep prices to transport food into a deprived district.

Today, consumers benefit from a global wheat market in which somebody somewhere has something to sell.  The end result: typically modest price fluctuations but no mass starvation.

The take-home message: The interdependence that has partly grown out of these scientific farming methods has helped spread risk.

To be sure, farming faces its share of challenges.  For the past generation, Extension educators throughout the country have been busily engaged helping the nation’s row-crop and livestock producers build a new farming model that merges scientific farming methods with sustainable practices.

We face challenges, daunting challenges.  Even so, it behooves all of us Extension educators not only to reflect on our achievements but also to defend them with the same zeal as Joe Friday.

The First Cooperative Extension Agent: A Celebration of All That Is Good in American Education

Thomas Monroe CampbellIf ever there was a testament to all that is good in American education, it was Thomas M. Campbell.

Like millions of black southerners only a generation removed from slavery, Campbell faced a bleak future eking out a living as a laborer in the foothills of northeastern Georgia.

He wanted something better in life. His brother was a student at a school in a faraway place with a strange name, Tuskegee, led by a man named Booker T. Washington.  As little as he knew about the place, he was certain of one thing: He wanted to be there — desperately.

He was determined to go to this school, even it meant walking all the way.  And walk he did — all the way to Tuskegee Institute and into the pages of history.

America’s First Cooperative Extension Agent

Campbell enrolled at the school.  And while he had a lot of academic catching up to do, his almost superhuman capacity and passion for hard work and self-improvement earned the respect and admiration of Washington.  Immediately after graduation, Washington entrusted him with a job — overseeing the “farmer’s college on wheels,” one of the first in a series of steps that culminated in what later became known Cooperative Extension work.

Campbell’s successful work with the farmer’s college led to his becoming the nation’s first Cooperative Extension agent, winner of the Harmon Award, and one of the most distinguished Extension educators in U.S. history.

I’ve often reflected on how different Cooperative Extension would be today had there not been a Tuskegee Institute to tap into the extraordinary energy and genius of this man.

U.S. Higher Education’s Singular Achievement

More than one pundit has reflected on one of the singular achievements of U.S. higher education:  its longstanding emphasis on giving remedial and underachieving students a fighting chance to succeed in life.

The stream of greatness that has flowed through institutions such as Tuskegee University along with the vast network of U.S. land-grant institutions, regional colleges and universities and community colleges testify to the depth of this commitment.

I relate to this on an intimate level, because while I’m by no means great, I was, by every measure of the word, a classic underachiever.

Like so many underachievers, I had spent my high-school years focusing only on those books and activities that interested me — behavior reflected in my lopsided grades and ACT score.  My encounter with my local regional university transformed me into something approaching a serious scholar.

I refer to it as an encounter because it took hold of me and transformed me into the person I am today, much as Tuskegee Institute did Thomas Campbell.

A Scottish Lesson

I gained a deeper appreciation for this more recently reading the last chapter of Arthur Herman’s  “How the Scots Invented the Modern World.”

Herman writes about how higher education in Scotland grew less egalitarian at roughly the same time that intellectual life in the region began to atrophy.  Even as this atrophy set in, Scottish universities, borrowing from their English counterparts, began imposing stricter admission standards.

“University students of thirteen or fourteen were now a thing of the past; the academic body more closely resembled that of other Western universities,” Herman writes.

No longer were 13- and 14-year-old students granted admission to these institutions, even though in earlier years a few teenage students had gone on to become distinguished, if not world-renowned, scholars.

Poor aspiring scholars had a harder time matriculating, too, trapped in what Herman describes as “the mesh of entrance exams.”

There are lessons here for America, a nation that seems more meritocratic — more SAT-obsessed — than ever.

Hasn’t there always been a place in this society for late-bloomers, underachievers and remedial students —  students who, for whatever reason, simply didn’t fit traditional molds?

Affirming a Legacy

This brings me back to one of the purposes of my weblog: to affirm the work and legacy of Cooperative Extension.

From the beginning, this informal educational movement has affirmed  the traditional value Americans have invested in nontraditional learning and, equally important, in ensuring that the fruits of learning are available to all.

The life of our first Cooperative Extension agent, Thomas M. Campbell, should serve as an enduring reminder that through exposure to the right person, experience or institution, even the poorest, the most disadvantaged, the most underachieving can soar to dizzying heights.

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.