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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Re-Perceiving the Land Grant University: Engaging Communities

The original mission of the Land Grant university was very much a response to social and economic needs that arose as a generation into the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. Today, a generation into the Information Revolution, we again must ask: What are the needs of society to which we can respond?

Among the critical problems that the land grant university addressed—and that defined its position in American life for several generations—was the need to greatly improve agricultural production. In the 1880s and 1890s, the United States was undergoing a two-front social revolution: rapid urbanization, as industry located near existing population and transportation centers, growing small river towns into major cities; and mass immigration, as millions came from Europe and elsewhere to find new opportunities and, in the process, provide the manpower for growing industries. A critical concern was that the nation maintain—and improve—its agricultural base in order to support urbanization and immigration.

The problem was partly one for science: how to improve agricultural productivity and sustainability of farms in order to produce more food for the cities. However, there was another dimension: literally, “how to keep them down on the farm.” Rural life was hard. Farm families did not have access to modern conveniences such as electricity and telephones. Even mail delivery was a problem until Rural Free Delivery was created in the 1890s—itself a response to the concern about improving the quality of rural life.

Land grant universities addressed these issues with a series of remarkable innovations (many of which we now take for granted, but that were radical changes in higher education in their day). These included:

  • Cooperative Extension Service, which coordinated funding from county, state, and federal sources to bring university expertise directly into communities. The result was the ideal of the Country Agent standing with the farmer in the field, working together on problems.
  • Four-H and Home Life programs that improved the quality of family life in rural areas and encouraged young people to stay in agriculture.
  • Correspondence study, which took advantage of Rural Free Delivery to extend both noncredit and credit courses to individuals in rural areas.
  • Management Development services that provided training to small business owners.

Over the years, other innovations built on these early departures, including the application of the extension concept to energy and environmental issues in the late 20th century, investments in educational broadcasting to better reach homes and schools, and impact research as a way of integrating the faculty member’s teaching, service, and research functions.

Engaging Communities in the Information Society

A generation into the Information Society, we must ask at least two questions:

(1) What are the problems to which the resources of our land grant universities should be directed?

(2) What innovations are needed to ensure an effective long-term response?

Several broad social issues come immediately to mind:

  • · Climate Change – How will climate change affect the productivity and viability of communities in our individual states? This issue is at least as important to the health of our society as was agricultural production in the early 20th century.
  • Globalization – What must our communities to do remain economically viable in a global community?
  • · Innovation – Given the move of heavy industry off shore, we need to create the capacity for innovation at the community level so that new ideas can take root and grow locally.
  • · Inter-Cultural Education – Increasingly, immigration will be replaced by networking that allows people to stay in their home countries while participating in the American economy. The United States will be less of a nation of immigrants and more of a networked culture, with each of us working with people from different cultures on a regular basis. Just as we created a K-12 education sector to respond to immigration, we now need schools that will produce local citizens who can participate in this new environment.

What other issues should the land grant university address in order to be relevant to the Information Society? What radical innovations are needed today?