Scholars debate future role of land-grant universities at Penn State

University Park, Pa. -- Five major issues are challenging America's land-grant universities, according to Penn State President Graham Spanier and echoed by conference leaders and presenters at The Legacy and the Promise: 150 Years of Land-Grant Universities, which concluded June 24 at Penn State. As land-grant institutions review their collective history to prepare for the 150th anniversary in 2012 of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, they also address questions of weakening state support as well as varying interpretations of the land-grant mission.

"As we've discovered over the course of this conference, land-grant institutions' historical development has been bumpy and contentious at times," said Roger Williams, conference co-chair, a published scholar of higher education and executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association. "The conditions and circumstances of land-grant universities have changed dramatically and will continue to change. Our essential mission remains intact -- teaching, research and outreach/public service -- and those, too, will continue to evolve. But land-grant universities will remain fundamentally oriented to serving our respective publics and improving the human condition. That's what our DNA is," he added.

As land-grant institutions try to balance the sometimes-conflicting priorities of its mission, Spanier noted, five additional issues underscore changing trends in 21st-century higher education -- privatization of public higher education, globalization of public and private higher education, the erosion of public commitment to the land-grant mission, 21st-century students' complex needs, and the quality of student learning in the context of today's faculty reward system.

"The privatization of American public higher education is one of the key trends out there, and the reason it is so relevant to the land-grant discussion is that many of the functions that universities like ours provide for our states have no offsetting income source. There is no tuition for what we do in fulfilling our land-grant mission," Spanier said. "There may be support for undergraduate education, but there is little or no opportunity to generate income in many of the units that we have considered fundamental to our land-grant activities. That is why decreasing commitment from state government has increasing implications, particularly in this area."

The issues Spanier highlighted differ fundamentally from the original 1862 land-grant charge of the Morrill Act of 1862 -- to increase access to higher education for the working classes; offer instruction in the applied sciences, engineering and the practical arts; and support economic development within states and across the nation. These new challenges place an additional burden of responsibility on schools to stay current with the needs of modern students and modern world-class research universities. Add to those demands a historical decrease in state funding, and the ethical obligations to the land-grant mission become even more complex.

Admittedly, scholars noted, the original purpose of the Morrill Act was fuzzy at best. In ensuing years, land-grant universities have led the evolution of their missions of teaching, research and public service. At the same time, they acknowledged, public perception and support of those universities' missions seems to have eroded.

Christopher Loss, assistant professor of education and history at Vanderbilt University, gave a presentation on agricultural extension and the New Deal of the 1930s, part of a session that compared historical extension activities with those of the 21st century. "One of the key values of land-grant institutions like Penn State is the notion of extension or public service -- serving their region, their state, the nation and today the world," he noted.

Extension activities, an integral part of land-grant universities, offer public service beyond state and national borders to improve the human condition, but now must be balanced with pressing current issues of higher education.

Loss, a 1994 alumnus of Penn State's Schreyer Honors College, added, "One of the things that impressed me about the conference presentations was the importance of core values in the history of the land-grant movement, and the sense that these institutions are constantly in the process of redefining those roles. That's true whether that value is democracy -- providing public access to education -- or extension. Penn State has taken a lead in restoring those values and making them matter."

Conference co-chair Roger Geiger, distinguished professor of higher education at Penn State, noted some of land-grant universities' enduring, if somewhat transformed, strengths: instruction in a broad range of the practical arts, from engineering and agriculture to health and human services; access to higher education, today provided to anyone in the world through online programs and degrees; and community engagement, a "natural outgrowth" of the land-grand mission.

"I think the distinctive mission of land-grant universities," he concluded, "is to provide access to expertise, which they have developed and cultivated."

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Last Updated July 20, 2011