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The Journal of Higher Education 74.1 (2003) 116-118

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Land-Grant Universities and Extension into the 21st Century: Renegotiating or Abandoning a Social Contract, by George R. McDowell

Book Overview

George McDowell's book places land-grant universities at the center of the question, "How will the university of the future serve a public who has unlimited access to unlimited amounts of information?" Underscoring his probing in this area is his assertion that outreach functions of the land-grant universities have been postponed too long.

McDowell addresses this question with a fervor that if audible would certainly echo through the halls of academia. Though the major part of the book reflects the opinions, and even biases, of McDowell, he reinforces his thinking with excerpts, quotes or ideas from recent publications and interviews with current or former leaders of universities and extension services. A sampling of those included are the Kellogg Presidents' Commission, Earnest Boyer, John Byrne, Lyla Houglum, Peter Magrath, Ed Schuh, Maria Tymoczko, and C. J. Weiser. Heobserves that despite the breakneck speed of change in both universities and society at large, extension is stuck at the mid-century point. "The problems of the society during the Golden Age of agricultural research and extension in the middle of the 20th century" (p. 10) still characterize the agenda of most extension programs today. Herein lies the author's "mundane and pragmatic" thesis: "Without greater engagement of the universities with the society, the public universities are in peril. Without that engagement, not only will the universities not be able to contribute to the pressing problems of the society, they will not be able to understand or renew the evolving culture, accurately or effectively interpret history, or significantly expand the understanding of the human condition" (pp. 26-27). McDowell is frustrated by the fact that land-grant institutions did not heed the calls for reform, thus setting the stage for his visualization of the future of land-grant universities and extension by providing a historical overview of their successful progression through the years but then painting a bleak picture of their status as they have entered the 21st Century. He offers a series of predictions, questions, recommendations, alternatives, and challenges that university leaders, extension leaders, and community leaders must jointly address, debate, examine, and experiment with if the 21st century land-grant university is to renew its social contract with the American people.

An overriding concern of McDowell's is that "extension staff and leadership have lost their way and have been taken hostage by farm and commodity groups" (p. 73), not to mention the negative effect of extension's connection with the USDA: "As one contemplates the future of the land-grant universities and the role of extension in their outreach activities, it is not difficult to argue that the partnership with the USDA is a significant liability to broadening the extension portfolio and engaging more parts of the universities under extension" [End Page 116] (p. 124). Interestingly, he offers ideas on alternative federal partners that represent true "out of the box" creativity. He proposes three scenarios: (a) dividing formula funds by major programs and partner with the USDA, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, and the Department of Commerce; (b) administration of extension monies by the National Science Foundation; (c) establish a Corporation for Public University Outreach to provide overall coordination of program delivery (pp. 126-127). Thus, McDowell doesn't simply stop at raising concerns and criticisms of the land-grant university and extension but goes the next step of making recommendations for re-engineering not only the federal partner but extension's structure within the land-grant system, as well as the university's social contract with the people of each state. Scenarios are included from universities and/or their extension services that have implemented new organizational or administrative structures or are experimenting with new programming or new types of partnerships.

The book is timely and...


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