What is the future of land-grant universities?
A conversation with a co-author of “Land-Grant Universities for the Future”
When land-grant universities were founded in the mid-19th century, the United States was much different than it is today. What do such institutions need to do to survive and thrive in our very different world?
To answer that question, Stephen Gavazzi and E. Gordon Gee interviewed 27 presidents and chancellors of land-grant universities. Their findings appear in the new book Land-Grant Universities for the Future.
Gee, a former president at The Ohio State University, is now president at West Virginia University. Gavazzi is a professor of human development and family science at Ohio State.
Ohio State News sat down with Gavazzi to discuss some of the major themes of the book. The conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
You talk about the need for land-grant universities to get back to their roots. What does that mean to you?
Land-grant universities were created to serve the communities they were built in. We need to get back to a focus on community needs. We talk in the book about being land-grant fierce, and to us that means in part finding what it is that connects the university to the community and not being afraid to meet the needs of the people from where you live. That’s especially important in an era where it seems many large research universities are starting to act more like one another, rather than emphasizing what’s distinct.
We have to say what our research, our teaching and our engagement is doing to help the citizens of the state, because we’re the “people’s university.” We have to respect the fact that the needs of the state of Ohio are different than the needs of the state of New Mexico and different than the needs of the state of Oregon. So what that means is that there is not only a diversity of universities in general, with the land-grants being one kind of university, but there’s also a diversity of land-grants themselves.
The rural-urban divide is a big topic in your book. Given that the United States is increasingly an urban nation, how should land-grant colleges approach the needs and concerns of rural America?
There were no presidents or chancellors who told us we have to focus less on rural issues and more on urban issues. They want to do both of these things. A great example of that is the opioid crisis. There are overdose deaths happening in rural areas and in urban areas. So it’s not a rural or an urban issue. We have to transcend the rural-urban distinction by saying there are some things that we just need to do for all communities.
That doesn’t mean that we also shouldn’t be called upon to help with issues that are primarily rural or primarily urban in scope. I think, though, that land-grants need to be known for what they’re doing for communities that transcends that distinction.
How should land-grant universities balance the demands of an increasingly connected global economy with the needs of the citizens who live near their campuses?
I think most Americans know they are a part of a global economy. Even if you just casually watch the news, you know that trade fights with China are going to affect soybean farmers in the heartland. But we lose our base when we fail to adequately articulate how what we’re doing has some meaning back at home. And I think that’s a problem. If there’s any place that I’m most critical of land-grant universities, it’s that we don’t spend enough time working on that narrative.
One of the huge advantages that we have as a land-grant institution, especially a land-grant in a state like Ohio, is the cooperative extension specialists in nearly every county. I think they do a great job. But we need to support these extension agents so they can serve as that front door to the university for community members. They should serve as the eyes and ears of the university, finding out what problems their communities need the universities to help solve.
The other part that we talk about in the book is that extension needs to be seen as more than just agriculture. The humanities professor, the English professor, the historian, the arts specialist – they all have just as much responsibility at a land-grant university to figure out how they’re going to engage constituencies as someone from agriculture or a related field.
Academics often tout the necessity of basic research, the kind that doesn’t have an immediate real-world application. But you push for an emphasis on applied research. Why is that?
We don’t have innovation if we’re not doing basic research. There’s no question about that. But the presidents we talked to believe in the necessity of both basic and applied research. The constituencies that are paying our bills want research that actually solves problems that society has right now. Land-grant universities need to brag more about the work they’re doing in this area.
And land-grant universities need to be purposeful in their reward system. If there are inequities in how we are rewarding basic research versus applied research than we certainly have a problem there.
What role should teaching and engagement play at a land-grant university? Are they in conflict with research as a goal?
The promotion and tenure process for faculty demands excellence in research, teaching and engagement, what we used to call service. Now, is everyone internationally known in all three areas? No. But all faculty have to have some level of excellence in all of them. You can’t merely be adequate.
However, saying that, one of the things that we heard from many university presidents was research has become the coin of the realm. And that that puts people who are really interested in teaching, and really interested in community engagement, in a bind. Because there are only so many hours in a day.
The bottom line for most of the presidents and chancellors that we interviewed was that what really matters is what you reward. So if you’re only rewarding people for their research expertise, then you do have a conflict, and then you do have a problem.
President Michael Drake at Ohio State has shown how you can reward teaching, through the program he instituted, the University Institute for Teaching and Learning. Ohio State is not only demonstrating that teaching excellence is important with the UITL program, but it is also putting cash behind it. The fact that Ohio State is rewarding people for teaching excellence is exactly the counter to this idea that somehow they’re in conflict. Now, to push that idea forward even further, I’d want to see the same thing done for community engagement. There should be ways for faculty to be rewarded for what they do in the community.
In the conclusion to your book, you suggest teaching a course on land-grant universities, and even provide a sample syllabus. Why do you think that is important?
We heard many university presidents and chancellors lament the fact that no one understands us as a land-grant university. We heard that all the time. And yet, we graduate 1.1 million students every year from land-grants. About 40 percent of our governors have received at least one degree from a land-grant institution. How can people not know more about us? Our idea is that, in the general education curriculum, we should teach students about land-grant universities and why they are important.
It is not a self-serving idea. We believe one of the key values of land-grant institutions is the idea of servant leadership, that students should be involved in activities to benefit their communities. We should be teaching that a major part of what you should be doing, whether you’re a chemist or a social worker, is giving back. Students should understand that part of the land-grant orientation towards the community is not just training students well in their vocation, but also training them to be good citizens. That’s a part of the land-grant mission and part of what students should learn when they attend such a school.