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The Future of Land-Grant Universities: America Poised to Reinvent Itself Again

To provide some context for my comments today, let me offer an excerpt of mission and purpose in the original 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Act:

“… to create a college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other classical and scientific studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

Another excerpt, this time from the New York Times in 1937 by Alfred Atkinson, president of the American Association of Land-Grant Colleges and Universities, marked the 75th anniversary of the Morrill Act:

“The future of land-grant colleges will be determined by the nature of the problems which come up in the areas they serve.

From the present point of view it appears as though the problems of social adjustment, to the technological conditions in agricultural and industrial areas, are going to require extended study and integration.

Problems of production have been dealt with most efficiently by the colleges, the department and the experiment stations, and now the problems of distribution and their social repercussions on the life of people on the farm and in industry are claiming and are apt to claim a good deal of attention.”

Today, some 75 years after that 75th anniversary, I find President Atkinson’s comments to be remarkably relevant.

It goes without saying that much of daily life has changed. When he made that observation, penicillin was not in use and no one had a computer – much less were smart phones in the hands of virtually everyone over the age of 10.

Can you imagine life without the ability to “google” the answer to all your questions?

That said, it may be fair to say that change, and the pace of change, is more rapid than ever before … and the potential of change now seems limitless.

I’ll admit it’s ironic that he believed the research problems had already been solved, but isn’t it fascinating that he identified “social repercussions” as the next area of focus for land-grant institutions. I would say that today we know how important both sides of that coin are, and will remain in the future.

Today, as we ponder, dissect and celebrate the enduring qualities of the Morrill Act, I want to remind us of the visionary breadth of the land-grant mission.

It is often true that we spend more time discussing land-grant universities in terms of research. I suspect that tends to conjure images of an agricultural research plot, an engineering challenge or a beaker in a chemistry lab. Those tangible images are a common way of understanding a part of our work.

It might also be fair to assume everyone shares an understanding and commitment to the balancing and complementing liberal arts aspect of a university education. But we assume so at our peril.

A telling example comes from the U.S. House of Representatives that voted in early May to prohibit the National Science Foundation from spending appropriated funds on its political science program. The Senate is likely to have a similar amendment within the next few weeks. 

The Consortium of Social Science Associations is working to provide information to counter this movement, and is doing so with powerful examples of research contributions drawn from the catastrophic events of Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill and how citizens react to natural disasters.

Notably, Indiana University political scientist Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009 for her analysis of economic governance.

These are substantial contributions to the great problems of the day – and as consequential, I would argue, as discoveries from a chemistry lab.

Reciprocally, the MCAT – which had eliminated liberal arts questions in 1977, will again be testing students in two new sections: psychological and social dimensions of medicine – starting in 2015.
(New York Times, April 13, 2012: Pre-Med’s New Priorities: Heart and Soul and Social Science)

It’s understandable that in this period of extended economic hardship, there’s a tighter focus on training for jobs, rather than the view that education is about understanding life and the world around us. When your fishing boat is sinking, you work on plugging the leak, not pondering the meaning of the mishap.

But after you find the short term solution, you will call on your powers of problem solving, gained from your liberal arts experiences, to deal with the issues of human safety and the impact of human intrusion to the lake water. Your creativity, curiosity and critical thinking skills, qualities catalyzed by broad-based higher education, lead to ways of building a better boat, safer and more efficient ways to fish, or new and different ways to think about the problem.  

More than ever, with so many kinds of holes in the bottoms of so many kinds of boats, we need people who can consider the causes, contexts and implications of problems, not just the physical solutions.

The Morrill Act may in some circles be best known for providing broader access to higher education. Remember, that 150 years ago the role and purpose of higher education were very different. Higher education was a means to perpetuate class barriers and prepare young elites for civic and spiritual leadership of the masses. Ironically, in doing so, the American collegiate system started off mimicking the European systems and social structures our country was to have escaped from.

In fact only the most privileged, and of course only white males, enjoyed studying philosophy and religion at the nine original – and with only one exception – private colonial colleges of the day:

  • Harvard College (now Harvard University),
  • the College of William and Mary,
  • Collegiate School (now Yale University),
  • the Academy of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania),
  • the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University),
  • King’s College (Columbia University),
  • College of Rhode Island (Brown University),
  • Queen’s College (Rutgers University) and
  • Dartmouth College.

In light of that, the Morrill Act was truly revolutionary in two critical respects:

First, it opened comprehensive higher education to the “industrial classes.” It did so while wisely envisioning a well-rounded higher education. Morrill himself is quoted as saying, “It would be a mistake to suppose it was intended that every student should become either a farmer or a mechanic … when the design [of the land-grant college] comprehended not only instruction for those who may hold a plow or follow a trade, but such instruction as any person might need ...”

Second, it opened up the unique and massive economic potential of a still very young and largely undeveloped country. That potential exceeded any of America’s contemporaries of the day, and would do so for well over a century to come.

It goes without saying that President Abraham Lincoln and Vermont Senator Justin Morrill are icons of American education. Who doesn’t recall images of Lincoln studying alone by candlelight, scratching out sums with a piece of coal on the back of a shovel? Morrill did get to attend school until he was 15, but his family could not afford to send him to college, so he too studied alone.

Lincoln and Morrill wisely understood how their own desire for education could scale to all Americans. They understood that higher education could enrich and empower a battered nation in the midst of a devastating civil war. They understood that higher education was both the key to individual enrichment and also a powerful mechanism to fuel innovation and progress.

It is important to remember the unprecedented strength, not just in our own country but relative to virtually anywhere in the world, that came from broadening the access of Americans to higher education. It’s important to realize that now, perhaps as much as ever, as we reinvent ourselves and tap into that strength once again.

Access and affordability remain important issues. The power of post-secondary education to improve the quality of life for all citizens, the financial benefits that accrue to both the individual who pays the tuition and the society who benefits by an educated citizenry seems so obvious to historians and economists. Given that, it is even more so ironic that many seem to have forgotten it. Remembering what as a country made us great will be critical to our future.

Given what currently often seems like a crushing wave of popular media attention about the cost of higher education, we in land-grant institutions have become an ever better investment and value. We need to remind students, parents and policymakers that our tuitions are reasonable, and studies show that higher education is an exceptional investment – rather than as miss-portrayed by the media, a “cost.” Particularly for land-grant institutions, our graduates are able to quickly recoup what they invest in their education and benefit personally, while contributing to the success and prosperity of those around them.

Our policymakers need to be reminded that higher levels of education benefit not only the individual, but lead to:

  • broad-based economic and social prosperity,
  • added tax revenues well in excess of those without a college education,
  • higher levels of civic engagement,
  • far lower unemployment, and
  • fewer demands on social safety-net programs such as welfare, health care and prisons,
  • those programs, singularly much less collectively, “cost” society far more than investment in public higher education.

And sadly, studies are showing that unless we change our current trajectory, the well-educated population that is approaching retirement will not be replaced by people with similar levels of educational attainment. We are at an inarguable crossroads.

As noted in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s recent report: The Competitiveness and Innovative Capacity of the United States (January 6, 2012) “… the innovative performance of the United States has slipped during the past decade compared to other countries.”

Similarly, the National Academies press has found that “U.S. leadership in technological innovation seems certain to be seriously eroded unless current trends are reversed. The accelerating pace of discovery and application of new technologies, investment by other nations in research and development and the education of a technical workforce, and an increasingly competitive global economy are challenging U.S. technological leadership and with it future U.S. prosperity and security.”
(The National Academies Press, Engineering Research and America’s Future: Meeting the Challenges of a Global Economy; 2005)

As recently cited by Chancellor Bob Birgeneau and Vice Chancellor Frank Yeary of UC Berkeley, during the past 15 years the Korean Government has invested significant resources into its universities and even shifted its national priorities to spend more on higher education. “In 2009 alone, according to the Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, Korea allocated approximately $4.1 billion (U.S.) for higher education funding – an increase of 14.2 percent over the previous year. In 2008, Korea launched an Educational Capacity Enhancement Project, which provides grants to campuses so that they can meet industrial demands for a high quality workforce.  UC System President Mark Yudof, in Exploring A New Role for Federal Government in Higher Education (2008) points to the “Brain Korea 21” Project, instituted in the late 1990s, and which continues to pursue improvements in research infrastructure and graduate-level training. Koreans are not the only ones doing so.

As our colleagues at UC Berkeley also point out, the French government announced in October 2011 that they were investing more than $10 billion in endowment funding for universities to partner together to create a high-level “elite” university system that could compete on a global scale. Similarly, the Indian government is seeking to build more than 1,000 new universities and 50,000 new colleges in order to meet the demand of doubling its higher education enrollment in the next 10 years!

Just as access to higher education helped our nation change its course and prosper 150 years ago, some areas of the country are starting to do so again today. At least on a regional level, some public leaders do “get it.”

A growing number of areas hit hard by the economic downturn are pursuing options to draw more college graduates to live there. For example, when Dayton, Ohio, lost half of its manufacturing jobs, leaders began to focus on developing and retaining college graduates, realizing that people with four-year degrees were their only path to economic development.  Prior to that new approach, 24 percent of Dayton adults had four-year degrees, compared with the average of 32 percent in other cities in the U.S. Other former industrial cities are starting to do the same.

In the Great Plains states, we have prospered and enjoyed more consistent economies, thanks to our commitment both to traditional sources of prosperity as well as diversifying our economies.

As we look ahead, this combination of strengths makes us well prepared to meet global needs. Our traditional challenge of feeding the nation, and now the increasing markets of the world, will be a bigger challenge than ever before. We will need to use advances not just in agriculture but also in all aspects of engineering and science to meet the basic human demands for food and water. Our land-grant institution’s education and research will continue to expand into the studies of nutrition, genetics, plant pathology, soil science and chemistry as the foundations for meeting that challenge.

What will the next iteration of the land-grant ideal contribute? I believe that more than anything, it will unlock the power of interdisciplinary problem solving. A deeply held aspect of our mission is to reach out to our citizens, to learn their needs and to work side by side to improve their lives. The power of land-grant institutions is unique because of our commitment to Extension, service, teaching and research; those are a combination of tools that we, uniquely within American higher education, bring to solving the challenges of those we serve.

When America took the history-making step of expanding access to and the practical productivity of higher education through its land-grant system, it was a turnkey event opening untapped and perhaps even unimaginable economic prosperity. As highlighted before, that led us from being a small, fragile young country to – in a relatively short period of time – a world power with few, if any, peers.

We are at a similar crossroads again. Will our system of land-grant institutions be a part of unlocking the next door? Let me ask you this instead – is there any aspect of American society better poised to do so than our system of land-grant universities?

After our country’s expansion of access through the various iterations of the Morrill Act, complementing service through the Hatch (1887) and Smith-Lever (1914) Acts, and most recently the G.I. Bill, what can we do to catalyze the turning points we have created in the past?

Despite historic improvements in expanding access to higher education, we need to do more. Higher education is the unparalleled key that unlocks our nation’s diverse potential.

I know that very personally because I am the first in my family to have graduated from college. My father was the youngest and first English-speaking member of his Italian immigrant family. They came to this country as field workers in California. By the third grade, my father was orphaned; he never finished school. My mother’s family of eight, not much better off, moved from Colorado to California during the dust bowl days. She only dreamed of college.

Ultimately, my parents slowly built a family business on their old dairy farm. The business grew and prospered. They now enjoy sending me postcards from foreign travels, and sharing how much they enjoy spending my inheritance!

But on a very serious note, their story of hard work leading to success is unlikely to be repeated in the future. Nationwide, estimates are that 63 percent of American jobs will require some postsecondary education or training by 2018 … and North Dakota isn’t exempt. In North Dakota, a stunning 70 percent of jobs are estimated to require postsecondary education by 2018. That’s only six years off!

Obviously, my family didn’t enjoy a long tradition of valuing higher education. They didn’t even enjoy the opportunity for it. But they supported me going to college and having the potential for a better life. And there, I found my academic niche and the life changing experience that higher education can represent. My life, how I defined it, and how I see the world around me, was forever changed.

More importantly, nobody in my extended family could help but notice and be profoundly moved by my transformation. That was so much the case that every sibling and cousin after me has pursued at least an undergraduate degree. Think about it – in one lifetime – an entire extended family’s potentials have been changed as a result of higher education.

That is why higher education is so important to me, and to those it impacts – sometimes, whether they realize it or not. There are few if any activities in life that can contribute more to us as individuals, but more importantly, to the people around us. 

It is an honor to work in a higher education setting and an honor to work at one of the nation’s top-ranked, student-focused, land-grant, research universities – where we are today accomplishing and contributing more to our state and nation than ever before in history ... and our most important work still lies ahead.

Thank you for being a part of that increasingly important contribution to our states, our nation and the world.


Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.

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Office of the President
North Dakota State University
Phone: +1 (701) 231-7211
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Mailing address: Dept 1000, PO Box 6050
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Last Updated: Monday, October 28, 2013 4:26:22 PM