Tag Archives: Auburn University

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.

Dignity Lost, Dignity Regained?

Years ago, an elderly lady shared with me a photocopy of a card carried around in the wallet of her long deceased uncle, Luther Duncan, a 4-H pioneer, Alabama Extension administrator, and Auburn University president.  The card essentially functioned as a wallet-sized catechism —a summary of the ethical standards that Duncan held most dearly. 

The frayed edges and smudged ink apparent even in the photocopy testified to the seriousness with which Duncan regarded these ethical standards. I imagined him perusing them time and again on those long train rides between 4-H meetings and farm demonstrations.

For me, this frayed card attested to the intense preoccupation, if not outright obsession, many 19th and early 20th century Americans had not only with high ethical standards but also with another attribute they closely associated with ethics — personal dignity.  In the view of most, acquiring these attributes involved a lifetime commitment and encompassed every bit as much of an inward as an outward transformation.

My parents were not born in the 19th century, though they could have just as well been.  They were sticklers for everything from posture and reasonably refined manners to grammar and diction. They never failed to note the slightest breaches of etiquette or moral lapses.   My father, who was born in abject poverty but went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees, solemnly informed my brother and me that neither of us would drag the Langcuster fortunes back into the squalor out of which he had struggled.

What I hated then with a passion — those straight talks and dire warnings — I recall today with a sense of profound and abiding gratitude, though I confess that I remain a work in progress.

From an early age, I suppose I intuitively understood that ethics and dignity went hand in hand.  Likewise, in dealing with others, I tended to assume that one attribute was accompanied by the other: One who comported oneself with dignity likely evinced high ethical standards and vice versa.

I suppose my upbringing accounts for why I read and zealously forwarded to friends David Brooks’s recent op-ed: “In Search of Dignity.”

While observing that Americans continue to recognize and appreciate dignity where it can still be found — in public icons such as Joe DiMaggio, Tom Hanks, Ronald Reagan and, it now appears, Barack Obama — Brooks nonetheless believes that any objective understanding of dignity has been lost.

What are the factors that account for this loss?

First, there is capitalism. We are all encouraged to become managers of our own brand, to do self-promoting end zone dances to broadcast our own talents. Second, there is the cult of naturalism. We are all encouraged to discard artifice and repression and to instead liberate our own feelings. Third, there is charismatic evangelism with its penchant for public confession. Fourth, there is radical egalitarianism and its hostility to aristocratic manners.

If dignity has been lost, how can it be regained?  More important, how do we reacquire something so intangible — something, much like humus, which is acquired only after long passages of time and only through the most careful and assiduous nourishment and stewardship?

Are you listening, 4-H?

Of Cow Colleges and British Dominions

I’ve been known for invoking some strange analogies in the course of my professional career, but I’ve been an eccentric so long that I’m no longer bothered by the stigma attached to it.

Every now and then, someone, usually associated with the media, will ask me to explain how Extension relates to the overall land-grant university.  I urge them to think of an old British dominion — an observation that typically elicits a blank stare or, in the case of a phone conversation, a long pause.

Actually, the analogy is a valid one. Think about Australia in the early 20th century, years before it went  through its nation-defining experiences of World Wars I and II.  The nation was unmistakably British in many ways.  Australians sang God Save the King, flew the Union Jack and, in their free time, recreated much like Britons, playing cricket or rugby, or, at least, rooting for people who did.

At the same time, though, there were things about Australia that were recognizably Australian — aboriginal culture, the Botany Bay experience, Koala bears, Kangaroos and Australian Rules football, to name only a few.

An Extension Analogy

A similar kind of distinction applies to Extension programs.  In many ways, the Cooperative Extension concept preceded land-grant universities.  Farmers were undertaking Extension-type outreach efforts decades before anyone even thought of developing land-grant institutions as a means of providing formal agricultural and mechanical training to common folk.

Moreover, there was nothing inevitable about the formal institutional tie that currently exists between state Extension programs and their land-grant counterparts.

A Cobbled Identity

The practice of affiliating Extension programs with land-grant universities was based on an informal agreement cobbled together by Seaman Knapp, generally recognized as the father of Cooperative Extension work, and C.C. Thach of Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University).  And underscoring just how informal this agreement was, it dealt with the comparatively banal question of how Extension work through the public schools would be carried out jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and API.  Yet, without this agreement, it’s possible the tie between state Extension programs and their land-grant counterparts would have been far less formal — which explains why even today Cooperative Extension administrators typically follow a separate reporting line than their counterparts in other university divisions.

This is an especially important distinction in Alabama, where two schools with deep agricultural and mechanical institutional roots — Auburn and Tuskegee universities —arguably can claim equal credit for pioneering the Extension mission, not only in Alabama but throughout the nation.

But I think it’s a distinction that should be borne in mind by Extension professionals all over the country. Never forget that the Cooperative Extension mission is as much a social movement with a unique history of its own as it is a university-affiliated outreach program.