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  • The Next Wave:Building University Engagement for the 21st Century
  • Gar Alperovitz (bio), Steve Dubb (bio), and Ted Howard (bio)

One of the federal government's important contributions to democratic life was the establishment of the nation's network of land grant colleges through the Morrill Act of 1862. That act and subsequent legislation led to the creation of land grant institutions in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, land grants at historically black colleges, community colleges for Native Americans, sea grant and space grant institutions.

When President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law, the country's first non-elite colleges were born. Their original mission was relatively straightforward: teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanic arts, as well as classical studies so that members of the working classes could obtain both a practical and liberal education. Two key elements of the land grant model were the agricultural experiment station which generated practical knowledge, and an extension service to disseminate the station's research, in particular to farmers who could then apply it to increase productivity on their land.

But at the heart of Senator Morrill's (and Lincoln's) purpose was a grander idea than merely expanding crop yields. The land grant vision was of an institution that could be a training ground for democratic life and civic practice. If citizens are not only born but "made" (that is developed through education, training, and exposure to democratic values and ideas), then land grant institutions, by offering access to non-elites, were intended to deepen political democracy and strengthen civic life in the nation.

As George R. McDowell has written, "…the principle behind their establishment was without historical precedent. That principle asserted that no part of human life and labor is beneath the notice of the university or without its proper dignity. Both by virtue of their scholarly aims and whom they would serve, the land-grant universities were established as people's universities. That was their social contract" (McDowell 2001).

In recent decades the contract between land grants and society has been largely broken. The reasons are manyfold: farmers, once the majority of the nation, now number less than 2% of the labor force. Agriculture has become mainly a corporate and industrialized sector, and our population has become urbanized and suburbanized; the traditional extension services no longer directly touch the lives of large numbers of citizens. At the same time many of the "people's universities" began emulating elite private institutions, chasing federal, corporate, and philanthropic research dollars and staking their reputations increasingly on graduate level education (though the great majority of their students were undergraduates). Research conducted by faculty with little connection to the surrounding community or citizenry of the state, and without clear and obvious direct application and social benefit, became the norm. Much good work was done, but the honored tradition of public service, the transfer of useful knowledge, skills, and technology to citizens who could apply them in their own lives and communities, and a commitment to addressing, and even helping to solve, social problems directly in the institution's own environment became marginalized. The vast majority of students and faculty no longer came in touch with the extension services that had once been at the heart of their institutions. And in the halls of state legislatures around the country, land grant presidents began hearing the accusing question, "But what are you doing for the people of our state?" Perhaps there is more than one reason state funding support as a percentage of the budget of public universities has been declining for at least the past two decades (Selingo 2003).

Given this picture, it was only partly in jest that McDowell concluded his study by noting, "A common reaction to 'I'm writing a book on the future of extension and land-grant universities' was 'do they have a future?'" Indeed, he reports that a friend told him the book might well be an epitaph for the land-grant universities as instruments of social change in American society (McDowell 2001).

The growing public sense that land grants have lost their way—or at least much of what had once made them...


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pp. 69-75
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