Friday, April 15, 2011

Engagement: A Vision for the Land Grant Mission in the Information Era

In the opening pages of The Americans: The Democratic Experience, Daniel Boorstin describes the national spirit in which the land grant university developed:

The century after the Civil War was to be an Age of Revolution—of countless, little-noticed revolutions, which occurred not in the halls of legislatures or on battlefields or on the barricades, but in homes and farms and factories and schools and stores, across the landscape and in the air – so little noticed because they came so swiftly, because they touched Americans everywhere and every day. Not merely the continent, but human experience itself, the very meaning of community, of time and space, of present and future, was being revised again and again; a new democratic world was being invented and was being discovered by Americans wherever they lived.

            Higher education has been part of that ongoing revolution, as human society made the final shift from an agrarian culture to an industrial culture and from a culture based in hereditary aristocracy to one based in democracy.  These transformations began in the late 1800s, gathered momentum in the mid and late 19th century, and reached their full power in the first half of the 20th century.   The transformation of higher education was, in part, a response to these broader societal changes and, ultimately, a stimulus for further change. 

Educating for Democratization and Industrialization

            The land grant university can be understood as a response to both democratization and industrialization.  Boorstin describes one of the early advocates for the land grant concept—Jonathan Turner of Illinois—who argued for “A State University for the Industrial Classes.”

All civilized society [Turner noted] was “necessarily divided into two distinct cooperative, not antagonistic, classes”; the “professional” class (doctors, lawyers, men of letters, and preachers) comprised only about 5 percent of the people, while the “industrial” class included all the rest. . . . To build a true democracy, Turner proclaimed, the industrial classes must also have their universities, at least one in each state. . . .The new universities would teach agriculture, manufacturing processes, and bookkeeping; they would provide experimental farms and orchards and herds of stock; and they would be “open to all classes of students above a fixed age, and for any length of time.”  (p. 483)

            The land grant university gave the “industrial classes” the opportunity to gain a higher education and fill new professional roles as engineers, scientists, and educators in an industrializing society.  At the same time, the land grant university responded to a significant issue in society:  how to maintain the pace of industrialization in light of massive immigration and urbanization that were essential to new industries.  The land grant university became a center for research into agricultural productivity and, through the Cooperative Extension Service, took its findings directly to farmers in their fields.  This transformed agriculture and ensured that the growing cities would be able to feed their burgeoning populations.  At the same time, land grant institutions—along with state-owned “normal” schools—provided public school teachers to staff a critical workforce development need:  to ensure that immigrants were acculturated to American life and that more could graduate from high school and move on to higher education. 

The Need for a New Covenant
            Two centuries after the first inklings of the democratic and industrial revolutions, we find ourselves a generation into a new transformation—the Information Revolution—and a vastly different set of social needs.  Some comparisons illustrate the need for refreshing our vision of the role of the land grant university:

·      Where the Industrial Revolution was concerned with immigration, the Information Revolution is concerned with globalization; people no longer need to come to the United States to participate in its economy.
·      Where urbanization drove industrialization and public policy in the 19th century, the trend at the beginning of the 21st century is ex-urbanization, as technology makes it possible for people to live in geographically dispersed professional communities. 
·      While the need for engineers, business professionals, and new social professionals (educators, health care professionals, etc.) drove higher education in the Industrial Revolution, the Information Revolution requires a larger, more diverse cadre of “knowledge workers” with some level of higher education and the ability to adapt easily to rapid change; the emphasis is less on specific professional training than on innovation.

            A variety of specific societal issues have emerged in the national awareness as signs of change.  Global warming, globalization of the economy, health care access and quality are only a few examples.  Most of these are already being addressed in our institutions.  However, we might also ask whether there are more subtle, underlying needs that should drive innovation in the land grant institution.

            It is becoming increasingly clear that one area where we may see profound change is the workplace itself.  A May 14, 2009, Time Magazine report on “The Future of Work” noted:

Ten years ago, Facebook didn't exist. Ten years before that, we didn't have the Web. So who knows what jobs will be born a decade from now? Though unemployment is at a 25year high, work will eventually return. But it won't look the same. No one is going to pay you just to show up. We will see a more flexible, more freelance, more collaborative and far less secure work world.

            As early as 2001, a National Academies of Science report, Building a Workforce for the Knowledge Economy, reporting on the “tightness” of the available workforce among trained information technology professionals, noted:

. . . because the underlying information technologies change so rapidly, there is concern that the labor market does not work as efficiently in this arena as economic theory would predict—i.e., that rising wages will not relieve the tightness, at least not “in time.” (p. xiii).

            One reason why labor market ideas created during the industrial period might not work in the information era is that jobs will be distributed well beyond national borders.  Another is that much work is increasingly automated, requiring less intensive human activity.   The number of “jobless recoveries” that we’ve seen in the past few economic turndowns might be one signal of a trend toward a less intensive workforce.  A trend like this could threaten basic democratic foundations of our society by creating a permanent underclass of under-employed workers.  Such a trend would require a significant social policy change to ensure that all Americans were able to support themselves and their families.

             Several social policy options could be envisioned.  For example, instead of having fewer people with jobs, social policy could be directed at having all people work fewer years, somewhat easing entry of young people into the job market.  One way to achieve this goal would be to make national service part of an early retirement system, making room more quickly for younger workers to come into the workforce during the years when they need money to raise their families and allowing older workers to move into volunteer or social-service work through a kind of national pre-retirement service system after their children are raised, allowing them to apply the lessons learned during their working days to the problems facing their communities.

            What, then, are the implications for the land grant university?

Engaging Society
            The first step is to re-envision the land grant mission to engage the new society that it serves.   Given the diverse—and often competing—cultures that have evolved in our institutions, the land grant mission must co-exist with other powerful missions.  Over the past century—and especially during the transitional period since World War II—the land grant university has been transformed.  Our land grant universities are now comprehensive research universities.  Their impact—and source of funding for research—often reaches well beyond their state boundaries.  The institutional culture has become more diverse in the process. 

            The comprehensive research university is typically seen as having three components:  teaching, research, and service.  The land-grant mission is often viewed as part of the service component.  There may a tendency, therefore, to isolate the land grant mission from the other competing goals.  That, in my view, would be a mistake.  The land grant mission must be seen as the means by which the university engages with the community across all three components:  Engaged teaching, engaged research, and engaged service.   The land grant mission is thus infused throughout the university.  That said, however, there must also be a champion for this mission within the university leadership.  Typically, that role falls to the Vice President for Extension or Outreach, which typically works on the financial and political periphery of the institution.  In the Information Age land grant university, leadership for the land grant mission should be positioned so that it can champion engagement across all three dimensions of the mission.  Each land grant university has a somewhat different set of cultural and political issues, so there is no single organizational solution.  Nevertheless, finding the right place for the leader who will champion the land grant mission in the diverse culture of our institutions is essential.

            It also is clear that, in the Information Society, the land grant mission must push the boundaries of the institution in at least two directions.   First, higher education needs to engage better with the K-12 segment, helping to improve access to courses that high school graduates will need in order to get into college and, especially, to majors that are important in the Information economy.  This engagement should blur the old boundaries between K-12 and higher education and could lead to accelerated degrees and other innovations at a scale needed to create and maintain the new workforce.  Second, higher education needs to take a lead in creating post-retirement skills for older adults, preparing them to play new roles in their communities after retirement.   Thirdly, higher education needs to build new collaborative relationships—new forms of engagement among universities, communities, and employers that encompass all three dimensions of the higher education mission:  engaged teaching to create and maintain a competitive workforce; engaged research to help businesses, farms, and other employers innovate and stay competitive; and engaged service support communities and families in this new social era.

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