Institutions for Useful Knowledge

By R. Douglas Hurt

Land-Grant Colleges and Popular Revolt: The Origins Of the Morrill Act and the Reform Of Higher Education by Nathan M. Sorber. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018.

Land-Grant Universities for the Future: Higher Education for the Public Good by Stephen M. Gavazzi and E. Gordon Gee. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.

The land-grant universities are fashionable, once again, although their importance to American higher education never foundered after these institutions established legitimate identities during the late nineteenth century. Today, the popularity of land-grant universities often requires administrators to raise admissions standards and cap enrollments, in part because of decreasing state funding. The reasons for the growth and resulting readjustments are complex, and educators have addressed them over the past decade with hand-wringing— and too rarely with clarity of thought. Fortunately, for anyone interested in the history of land-grant universities and potential ways to refocus these institutions on their mission, Nathan M. Sorber, Stephen M. Gavazzi, and E. Gordon Gee, all experienced land-grant institution educators and administrators, provide two studies that frame the history and needs of these institutions.

Nathan Sorber, in Land-Grant Universities and Popular Revolt, has written an excellent survey of the origin and development of the land-grant university system. He traces that history, from the contested purpose of the Morrill Act of 1862 that created the land-grant colleges through the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which led to the establishment of cooperative extension services to provide education and training for practicing farmers. Sorber emphasizes the development of land-grant colleges in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont—states where the location of land-grant colleges or their incorporation with existing institutions often proved troublesome and not always in the expansive spirit of the Morrill Act. In the Northeast, however, worn-out soil and western agricultural competition gave renewed reason for the creation of an agriculture-oriented educational system that could turn decline to progress and foster economic improvement. Sorber discusses the challenges of making the land-grant colleges more than trade schools. Not until the passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914, he argues, did land-grant colleges achieve their modern format emphasizing teaching, research, and service. The general outlines of Sorber’s regional history can be applied to the histories of land-grant institutions nationwide. He recognizes the land-grant colleges for “the advancement, dissemination, and application of useful knowledge” and effectively documents the educational efforts that led eventually to the improvement of agriculture through mechanization, science, and technology.

In 1862, the Morrill Act stated that the purposes of the land-grant colleges were to provide instruction in agriculture and the mechanical arts to promote liberal and practical education for the industrial class. Farmers and educators, however, had different understandings of the need for “public” higher education. Moreover, the land-grant colleges did not have the knowledge base to address their legislative mission until much later. Only with the 1887 passage of the Hatch Act, which established the experiment station system for the purpose of conducting regional research, did these institutions have much to teach regarding agricultural improvement. In the meantime, administrators tried to emulate the private liberal arts colleges. Traditional college educators were not interested in providing instruction about practical agriculture, nor were they interested in teaching women or African Americans. Equally important, the land-grant colleges did not appeal to farmers. Farmers did not want their children to learn about literature, higher math, or classical languages; they wanted faculty at the colleges to teach their children to become better, more efficient, and profitable farmers.

During the late nineteenth century, young men and women began leaving the farms for better opportunities in towns and cities. Farmer organizations, particularly the Patrons of Husbandry, believed that the land-grant colleges could provide practical agricultural education that would increase the standard of living and the social satisfaction of their members’ children and thereby keep them close to their families in the countryside. Sorber observes that the emergence of a market economy moved farmers away from subsistence to commercial agriculture. Farmers needed specialized but “useful knowledge” in order to participate in a market economy, and they wanted colleges that would provide it. Although the market revolution required useful knowledge, leading American scientists received their training at German universities, where pure rather than applied research set the standards for academic excellence. Agricultural societies, farm newspapers, and the lyceum movement (through local societies that offered public education and entertainment) emphasized applied agricultural education and stressed the importance of science for the improvement of agriculture, but these groups saw the educational world differently from how traditional educators did.

Vermont congressman Justin Morrill and supporters of his legislation believed that public higher education had to align with national, not just agricultural, needs. Land-grant colleges would not only increase and disseminate scientific knowledge; they would also train technical specialists and managers to increase industrial productivity and innovation and produce skilled workers who could enjoy and improve civic life because of their education. Although the land-grant colleges contested with farmers the meaning of science, admission standards, and curricula, the development of short courses and extension programs for farmers helped the land-grant institutions transition from agricultural schools to state colleges where both science and the liberal arts replaced vocational studies.

Women increasingly challenged the confines of gendered spheres of life, but many land-grant educators initially refused to recognize the value of educating farmwomen. Despite early gender discrimination, the land-grant colleges eventually became the higher education sector that educated the most women from nonelite—that is, not wealthy— families. In 1870, Cornell, a private land-grant university with publicly supported statutory colleges, admitted its first class of women. In time, the other northeastern land-grant institutions became coeducational. The origin, development, and promise of science-based home economics courses helped crack the proverbial glass ceiling for coeducation because people respected science. If farmwomen could be educated about scientific principles, faculty, institutional time, and resources would not be wasted, particularly if home economics programs worked closely with agricultural programs. Courses on nutrition, home economics, management, sanitation, and food preservation linked with chemistry, biology, political economy, and mathematics. Home economics became an applied science that led to careers in education and extension programs and thereby improved the body politic. By the turn of the twentieth century, coeducation at land-grant colleges had become the rule. Racial integration had not. The passage of the Second Morrill Act in 1890, however, provided for segregated land-grant institutions for African Americans, who had not been served by the 1862 Morrill Act.

Sorber writes that “the typical narrative remembers the original land-grant colleges as having a unified, democratic purpose to expand college access to the underserved and to provide a practical education for working people in agriculture and the mechanical arts.” He proves that wistful reflections do not substitute for historical research and analysis. Sorber traces the tortuous, contentious, and hard-fought efforts to create and develop land-grant institutions, a process made more complicated by gender and racial discrimination. Pragmatic compromises eventually provided an expanded, more democratic system of higher education. But land-grant colleges never became an educational paradise, and the Morrill Acts did not cause a flurry of enrollment or the complete democratization of higher education. Many potential students from rural areas could not qualify for admission or could not afford even the lower tuition of these institutions. For others, poor secondary education ensured failure. In many respects, land-grant colleges remained as closed to rural children as the elite institutions were. Even so, graduates used their courses in science, liberal arts, and engineering to pursue careers in agriculture, industry, business, and government that otherwise would have been impossible to achieve. Some early land-grant institutions originated as vocational schools, while others emphasized science and the liberal arts. Today, land-grant colleges, now universities, strive to serve the economic and, to an extent, the social needs of their states.

Focusing primarily on the present and complementing Sorber’s historical perspective, Stephen M. Gavazzi and E. Gordon Gee in Land-Grant Universities for the Future make a plea for renewing the original service mission of these institutions. They argue that land-grant universities have diverged from their tripartite mission of teaching, research, and service and contend that unless these universities reengage with the public they will lose relevance. Land-grant institutions need to help solve community problems, because the faculty can provide research-based, practical solutions that will show the public that their institutions have value and will thereby regain and build community support. Engagement will not only improve communities but also enrich the educational experience of students who participate in community projects. Gavazzi and Gee believe that because of their unique purpose, land-grant institutions must meet community needs not served by other universities. They do not discount the historical importance of land-grant institutions in providing access to affordable education for students who otherwise could not achieve a university degree—although as Sorber demonstrated, tuition has always been an obstacle for rural and low-income students. Without disparaging the long-standing emphasis on research and teaching, they express concern about the disconnection between the public and these institutions.

The authors base their study on interviews they conducted with twenty-seven presidents and chancellors who represent 56 percent of the land-grant institutions in the continental United States. All of the interviewed administrators call for their institutions to become “servant” universities, “defined by stewardship and sacrifice.” Gavazzi and Gee also discuss efforts to codify community engagement. Seven major themes emerged from their interviews: funding declines versus the need for efficiency; research versus teaching and service; pure versus applied research; rankings versus access and affordability; the needs of rural communities versus urban areas; global versus local impact; and the benefits of a university degree. They also evaluate the role of governing boards whose members, they found, often do not understand the land-grant mission or the roles of board members. Engagement and collaboration with local and state groups do not achieve increased national visibility in the way that research does, so many board members value them less.

Gavazzi and Gee conducted their research during the 2016 presidential campaign. Essentially, their research questions were four, in two categories: (1) What are the strengths of land-grant universities? (2) What are their weaknesses? (3) What are their opportunities? (4) What are the most important problems or community needs? They found that the populations surrounding land-grant institutions tend toward conservatism and that the institutions constitute liberal islands in many areas. Consequently, land-grant institutions need to be politically neutral and cautious in community affairs. Communities have shared values but contain multiple audiences. The authors urge land-grant universities to work with the publics in their states rather than against them, hence the need for engagement—in part to help the public understand how these institutions can benefit their communities.

Gavazzi and Gee contend that if legislators do not see the community benefits of land-grant institutions, state funding will be in jeopardy. They urge a renewal of commitment to “engagement” that will enable the land-grant institutions to reach both rural and urban constituents. By collaborating with—that is, engaging—the public, these institutions can use faculty expertise to enhance the common good. Lack of state funding, however, has limited these efforts. As funding has declined, land-grant institutions have sought resources from various granting agencies, reinforcing the system that rewards faculty for receiving grants and publishing books and articles but not for addressing or working with community groups. Gavazzi and Gee urge a restructuring of the reward system to place community engagement activities at the forefront. Research grants elevate faculty and university prestige, however, and lead to improved rankings that influence the public. As a result, most presidents and chancellors measure faculty productivity and institutional success through grants and publications. Recognition for good teaching and engagement lags behind in importance. Moreover, many land-grant institutions emphasize time to degree and the short-term value of degrees rather than preparation for lifelong learning, thus placing themselves on the road back to vocational education. Some even offer supplemental certificates for various activities intended to increase vocational credibility.

The ranking and credentialing of land-grant institutions have encouraged them to increase their requirements for admission in order to boost student achievement while also justifying tuition increases. Students often apply from rural areas where public schools do not provide adequate preparation for college and the income base remains too low to ensure both access and success, all to the detriment of the mission of land-grant institutions to educate students of the working class. Today, Gavazzi and Gee contend, land-grant flagships privilege middle- and upper-income students: the students who can neither meet their more rigorous admissions standards nor afford their cost must rely on cheaper and supposedly less rigorous branch campuses.

The various departments in the colleges of agriculture have most effectively met the engagement needs of rural communities. Other disciplines have been less successful. This problem leads Gavazzi and Gee to champion research as a way to address community needs. Few faculty members will take time from their teaching and research unless universities reward them for engagement. Gavazzi and Gee argue that interdisciplinary land-grant university research must be disseminated to the public through various forms of engagement. They also recognize the danger of joint appointments in the tenure process yet do not consider that a faculty member usually privileges one department over the other in time, energy, and productivity. There are no equal winners: one department usually loses.

While Gavazzi and Gee urge land-grant institutions to emphasize community engagement, they recognize that few standards exist for measuring that within the current faculty reward system. They do not have a solution to that problem, but they support efforts to find one. They believe that engagement must derive from scholarship, and they champion service-learning courses to enable students to engage the public, because group projects can feed into organized service activities that meet community needs. Their findings indicate that community groups prefer to work with students rather than faculty.

Overall, according to Gavazzi and Gee, the public is wary of the intellectual activities of land-grant institutions because they do not see a community gain. Research is a luxury to the public, which prefers good teaching, even over engagement. The public wants efficiency rather than waste, but this can lead presidents and chancellors to reduce essential services and staff or contract out various services to improve resources.

Sorber bases his history of the origin and early development of the land-grant institutions on excellent research and careful analysis. It will prove useful for historians of American agriculture and education. Gavazzi and Gee’s study, although somewhat repetitive, will appeal to land-grant university administrators and scholars interested in higher education. Anyone who wants a good, early history of land-grant institutions should read Sorber, while anyone who wants to think about current land-grant educational policy should read Gavazzi and Gee.

R. Douglas Hurt is professor of history at Purdue University. He is a fellow and former president of the Agricultural History Society and a former editor of Agricultural History.