How Land-Grant Universities Can Enrich the Future of Communities

These institutions offer statewide resources that municipal leaders should take more advantage of.
July 1, 2019 AT 4:00 AM
West Virginia University
West Virginia University (Shutterstock)
By Stephen M. Gavazzi  |  Contributor
A professor of human sciences at Ohio State University

Two years ago in this space, I used a marriage metaphor to describe the interactions between campuses and their communities. I emphasized the development of harmonious town-gown relationships characterized by high levels of both effort and comfort. I urged community leaders to become more active suitors in order to jump-start partnerships that would generate a strong return on investment for all parties.

In that column I was focusing on higher-education institutions -- large and small, public and private -- and their immediate host communities. But there is another aspect to the college-community relationship: the potential for the public institutions known as land-grant universities to serve all communities across their states. That potential hasn't received enough attention in recent decades, either from universities or communities, but there are hopeful signs of movement toward reinvigorating that relationship.

In our book published last year, "Land-Grant Universities for the Future: Higher Education for the Public Good," West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee and I reported findings from our extensive interviews with university presidents, state lawmakers, governors, accreditors and higher-education thought leaders. Our primary task was to identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that enhanced or hampered the ability of land-grant universities to meet the needs of their states' communities.

The Morrill Act of 1862, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, granted federal land to states to support the development of America's first public universities. Land-grant institutions that were created include such prominent ones as Cornell, Maryland, Michigan State, MIT, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers, Texas A&M, West Virginia University, Wisconsin and the University of California -- four dozen of America's largest and best public universities. Add to this historically black colleges and universities and tribal colleges, and the total comes to more than 110 institutions.

Subsequent acts of Congress expanded the mission of these institutions to include research efforts as well as service responsibilities that would meet the needs of communities within their states. Critically important was the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which created the Cooperative Extension Services. As a result, each state had a Cooperative Extension office placed within every county. Those offices were designed to serve as the "front door" to the land-grant university, a portal for communities to engage and collaborate with the institution's faculty, staff and students.

In our book, Gee and I discuss our concerns about the "mission drift" that many land-grant universities have experienced over the past several decades, particularly the decreased amount of attention seemingly being paid to the needs of communities. While attributable to many economic and social factors impacting higher education, this growing disconnection has had very real consequences. One of the most significant: decreased public support for higher education.

But against the backdrop of these concerns, we also applaud many newer initiatives that, in combination, seem to be bringing communities back into the viewfinders of many land-grant and other public universities. One sterling example is the Innovation and Economic Prosperity Universities Program, hosted by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. This initiative assists universities in documenting and amplifying their ability to support economic and community development through meaningful, ongoing campus-community partnerships.

A second example is the more recent efforts of 4-H, which is administered by Cooperative Extension Services. The National 4-H Council recently set a goal of reaching 10 million of America's young people -- 20 percent of the total youth population -- by 2025, with special emphasis on deepening 4-H's involvement with minority youth.

What does this mean for municipal leaders? Most importantly, you should know that you have a land-grant university in your state that, by design, is specifically tasked to work with and for your community. Cooperative Extension Services personnel are immediately available to make those connections for you and your constituents. 4-H program leaders are ready to work with even greater numbers of youth within your community. And faculty members representing a variety of academic arenas are available to provide hands-on assistance, especially in areas associated with economic and community development issues.

Your community's future can be greatly enriched by taking advantage of the resources offered by your state's land-grant institutions. Mr. Lincoln would be pleased to see how, more than 150 years later, his original vision for America's growth and development continues to be led by its original public universities.