Are land-grant universities still 'democracy’s colleges?'

December 03, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Land-grant universities were once known as “democracy’s colleges” — places where people who were not wealthy elites could come learn the skills necessary to be an engaged citizen.

The role of higher education in a democracy is complicated, and nowhere does that appear more obvious than at land-grant institutions. University systems around the country face funding cuts from their respective states and a growing anti-intellectual sentiment from constituents.

Penn State Executive Vice President and Provost Nick Jones discusses these issues on the latest episode of the Democracy Works podcast, produced by McCourtney Institute for Democracy and WPSU.

Penn State Executive Vice President and Provost Nicholas P. Jones

Penn State Executive Vice President and Provost Nicholas P. Jones

IMAGE: Penn State

“One of the important aspects [of land-grant universities] that often is not talked about but is vital that we need to have an educated citizenry. They need to be able to understand issues and think deeply about them,” Jones said. “As Pennsylvania's land-grant university, part of our mission of service to the citizens of the commonwealth is to ensure that we're doing everything we can to ensure that they do represent that educated citizenry.”

Land-grant universities were established when Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862. The world has changed since then, and and the role of a university to its community has changed along with it. Land-grant universities now operate medical centers, arts facilities and many other services in addition to educating students in classrooms.

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year argued that these extended services were detracting from the core democratic mission of land-grant institutions. Jones said decisions to expand Penn State’s reach are not made lightly and that all of the University’s operations are united around the same core values.

“If I had my druthers, every morning when I would get up, the first thing I would do is just read, reread the mission statement of the University to make sure that when I come to work, I am adhering to that mission,” Jones said. “The mission of the land-grant university is incredibly powerful 160 years after we were founded. And that is a mission of research in the public good, a mission of teaching the citizens of the commonwealth in 2018 and beyond”

To hear the interview with Jones, visit or subscribe in Apple Podcasts or Spotify.


Last Updated December 03, 2018