Aligning twenty first century opportunities with a nineteenth century ideal
by Barry Batcheller
When I was a young boy growing up in Freeport, Long Island, I had the most amazing fifth grade science teacher. His name was Mr. Smith, and he really loved his job. He once told me that he thought his primary job was to awaken the sense of curiosity that is latent within all of us, and to show us how to wake up that muse any time we wished, throughout the rest of our lives.
I have long forgotten most of what took place in those fifth grade science classes, but I remember being exposed to the magic and mysteries of science there, as can only be seen through the eyes of a ten year old. And Mr. Smith was right, I have never forgotten how much fun it is to probe the nature of the universe and try to coax from her the secrets she holds dear.
I'm absolutely sure that the year I was exposed to Mr. Smith was the year I decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. From that point on, being a scientist or engineer sounded like much more fun than being a fireman or policeman. Seven years later, I graduated from Freeport High School and decided that North Dakota State University was where I wanted to pursue my dream of becoming an engineer. I chose NDSU for two reasons - the first was that NDSU would allow me to carry 23 credits a quarter and pursue a double major in aerospace and electrical engineering, and the second was that when I talked to the dean of electrical engineering at NDSU he informed me that they were working on a project for Skylab; and if I was a good student I'd get to work on it too. This was in 1969, and men were shortly to walk on the moon. Everyone I knew wanted to play some sort of role in space exploration, and I was determined to start my journey in Fargo.
By 1974 the space race had ended and I was married to a farmer's daughter from Ada, Minnesota. I'll never forget the first time I went to Ada and meet my future father-in-law. We were sitting around the dining room table when Julien told him that I was from New York, and I watched his eyebrows go up. He later found out that I could weld - courtesy of the welding course I took at NDSU - and things were OK from there on. Following graduation I almost accepted a job offer with Texas Instruments in Dallas, Texas, but was persuaded by a fellow NDSU graduate to join him at Steiger Tractor, a young tractor manufacturing company in Fargo founded by the same folks who had started another successful business in North Dakota, Melroe Bobcat.
When I joined Steiger I was the only electronics engineer in the company. It was an amazing place. There were about 40 people in the engineering department, and they had this incredible entrepreneurial spirit. At a time when four-wheel-drive tractors were fairly new upon the plains, they were experimenting with two-engine tractors, three-engine tractors and electrically controlled power shift transmissions. Over the next four years, they allowed me to create an electronics engineering department, design a fully integrated on-board computer that controlled every major component of the tractor and spin off a wholly-owned electronics subsidiary.
This little company pushed the state-of-the-art in control and display technology for agricultural machinery far beyond what was then accepted practice in the industry, and was a principal reason that Tenneco purchased the company in 1986.
Having acquired a taste for the advancement of electronics in agriculture, I struck out on my own in the spring of 1987, and along with two other former Steiger executives, founded an electronics company in Fargo focused on the development and production of electronics for mobile equipment. We called the new company Phoenix International. "Phoenix" because we were rising from the ashes of Steiger Tractor and "International" because there were about a million companies named Phoenix in the world and we thought international sounded impressive. Twelve years later, when we sold the company to John Deere, we were indeed an international firm with offices in Paris and Cologne and a factory in Denmark. I stayed on at Deere as their director of technology for six years after the acquisition. I retired from Deere in 2005 and founded my current company, Appareo Systems. Phoenix is now one of the largest high technology firms in Fargo.
I share this background with you - 35 years in the development of advanced technologies for mechanized agriculture - as a preface to the remainder of my essay, which follows the evolution of the land-grant university concept from an agricultural-based ideal in a country where agriculture was the primary industry, to the expanded role that land-grant universities might play in the 21st century.
America was a vastly different place back in 1862 when Justin Morrill, a U.S. Representative from Vermont, proposed legislation which ultimately established land-grant colleges. The legislation he proposed was strongly influenced by the social constructs of the time, in which agriculture played a dominant role. Subsequent legislation that built upon the land-grant college foundation - the Hatch Act of 1887 and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 - were similarly influenced by circumstances affecting American society at the time of their creation.
In the mid-1800s, it was unusual for an individual in this country to have a college degree. Higher education, for the most part, was reserved for those of substantial means. Justin Morrill, the son of a blacksmith in Vermont, left school at the age of 15 because his father could not afford the tuition required to send all his sons to college. Mr. Morrill went on to become a prosperous store owner and became very active in public life. In 1855 he was elected to congress, and became an outspoken advocate for the ideal that a college education should be available, at low cost, to all who desired one.
The Morrill Act states that "the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life."
The emphasis on education in the agricultural and mechanical arts must be interpreted in the context of the times. In 1860 the United States was still predominantly an agrarian society. The population of the country was 31.4 million people, of which 15.1 million people, or about 48 percent of the total population, lived on about two million farms, principally located east of the Mississippi River. The average farm size was less than 200 acres, and farmers represented about 58 percent of the labor force. Agricultural exports that year were $189 million, which represented about 81 percent of the total exports of the United States. The health and vitality of the nation was to a large extent dependent upon a strong and vibrant agricultural industry, and had been so since first becoming an independent nation. In fact, the first census of the United States, taken 70 years earlier when the population was just under 4 million people, showed that more than 90 percent of the populous was involved in agriculture. So in 1862 an emphasis on education in the agricultural and mechanical arts made a great deal of sense.
By the time the Hatch Act was passed in 1887, the population of the United States had grown to approximately 58 million people, and the number of farms to more than four million.
Agricultural exports had more than doubled since the passage of the Morrill and Homestead Acts of 1862, and now represented more than 75 percent of the total exports of the country. Nevertheless, at this time in America's history many of the nation's farmers were in great debt, which congress attributed to a deficiency in general practical knowledge of agricultural methods, and the absence of productive, reliable agricultural machinery. These deficiencies were seen as direct contributors to the lack of prosperity for America's farmers, and they needed to be addressed. So the stage was set for the government to intercede and accelerate innovation in agriculture. The industrial areas of the economy had already received significant money for the purposes of research, and Congress felt a need to create and maintain an equitable balance among all sectors. It was felt that creating such an equitable balance would, in turn, increase the economic security of the nation.
With the passage of the Hatch Act, the federal government for the first time reached out to support research and discovery in the nation, and took an additional step in stimulating economic growth. The stated purpose of the Hatch Act of 1887 was "to establish agricultural experiment stations in States that had established colleges under the Morrill Act, in order to provide funding to those States willing to conduct research in the area of agriculture."
Research conducted at these stations needed to be related to the physiology of plants and animals; diseases and remedies of diseases in plants and animals; comparative advantages of crop rotation; capacity of plants to acclimate; analysis of soil and water; analysis of various types of fertilization and their comparative effects on crops; digestibility of foods for farm animals; and any other research deemed directly related to and beneficial for the United States agriculture industry. Like the Morrill Act before it, the Hatch Act was intended to provide support for agriculture, the nation's leading industry, this time in the form of impetus for research with the goal of fostering economic growth.
By 1914, farm population in the United States was approaching its peak, but was already showing signs of decay. Life in rural America could be difficult, and the urbanization of the country was underway. Secretary of Agriculture David Houston believed that nothing short of a comprehensive attempt to make rural life attractive, comfortable and profitable would solve the chronic problems of agriculture and rural life. He viewed the Smith-Lever Act as the mechanism through which the intellectual and social aspects of rural life could be improved. Specifically, the Smith-Lever Act facilitated the distribution of information on agricultural research spawned by the Hatch Act to the user group for which it was originally intended - the American farmer.
The Smith-Lever Act provided for cooperative financing of the present-day county extension agent system under the direction of land-grant colleges and universities, and in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture. Not only did this system communicate new research findings from the agricultural experiment station's staff to farmers and others, it encouraged problems identified on farms and ranches to be brought to the attention of the station's staff for research, study, and resolution. By virtue of the Smith-Lever Act, not only did Congress mandate a third mission for land-grant institutions, but it also established a new funding arrangement. The Extension Service was to be funded through a three-way partnership between the federal, state and county governments.
With these three sweeping legislative acts the foundational tenets of the land-grant university were established - accessible, practical education for all, research in the public interest, and connectedness to the citizenry.
The number of farms in the United States rose slowly over the next 20 years, peaking at 6.8 million farms by 1935. However, the next 40 years witnessed a rapid decline in American farm population, falling from 6.8 million farms in 1935 to 2.8 million farms in 1975. Since 1975 the rate of decline has moderated somewhat. Today there are approximately 2.2 million farms in the United States, and the composition of American farms has changed dramatically since the Morrill Act was passed in 1867.
American production agriculture has become bipolar, with both very small farms and very large farms growing in size, while the quantity of "middle-sized" farms is decreasing rapidly. If advancements in agricultural productivity continue at the rate seen during the last 20 years, by 2037 one hundred thousand American farmers could feed the entire United States. Production agriculture, although certainly a critically important part of American industry, is no longer what it was when the Morrill Act was passed in to law in 1867.
If Justin Morrill were alive today, he would probably recognize that there is a significant gap between the kind of graduates American universities are producing today and what America actually needs to stay relevant in a global economy. American companies today desperately need talent with degrees in STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering and Math - in much the same way that 1867 America needed farmers and agronomists. STEM-based jobs are increasing at three times the rate of other jobs in our economy. However, these positions are the hardest to fill because of the shortage of native-born Americans with these degrees. Only 4.4 percent of U.S. born undergraduates are enrolled in STEM programs, whereas 33.9 percent of students in Singapore, 31.2 percent of students in China, 12.4 percent of students in Germany and 6.1 percent of students in the U.K pursue these degrees. As the U.S. workforce ages, employers will face even more significant shortages of skilled workers. For example, more than half of all scientists and engineers in the workforce are nearing retirement age. An estimated three million Americans will turn 60 each year, many of whom are skilled in science and math. As a result, the United States will face a shortage of almost a quarter million hi-tech workers by 2018.
In today's knowledge economy, almost all jobs require some level of computing or information technology skill. Policymakers, businesses, community leaders, educators and other stakeholders must work together to ensure that students and workers have access to the education and skills development they need to succeed, and that the U.S. can compete in the dynamic global economy. Policymakers should draw on the experience of the private sector and build on their current investments in workforce training and development to create more effective workforce development solutions. In particular, the experience and involvement of business leaders on state and local workforce boards is essential. Working together with our land-grant university partners and drawing on their experience in extension education, we may be able to better close the gap.
The needs of society have changed substantially over the past 150 years, but the foundational tenets for the formation of the land-grant universities - accessible, practical education for all, research in the public interest and connectedness to the citizenry - all are just as relevant as they were 150 years ago. It is the obligation of today's citizenry to use these resources appropriately to address the needs of our modern society.