Tag Archives: land-grant universities

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.

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.