Speak Your Piece: Preserving the People’s Universities


By C. Robert Taylor

I write this article not out of dissatisfaction with my life as a professor, but because I think the Land Grant universities are drifting away from their mission of providing help and education for common people like my family and me.

These are the nation’s Land Grant universities — the Peoples’ Universities.

The stalemate (in the Land-Grant System is) due to mindset, uncertain mission, ineffectual leadership and inappropriate organization.Dr. James Meyer, Chancellor Emeritus, UC-Davis, 1997

On Tuesday morning, July 2, a “convocation” celebrating 150 years of the Morrill Act that created the Public Land-Grant University System will be held in Washington, DC. The Association of Public Land-Grant Universities (APLU), with support from the W.W. Kellogg Foundation, organized the event.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan will be there. So will Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. Microsoft founder Bill Gates will be the keynote speaker. And the APLU promises “a dynamic set of panel discussions…that will help set the agenda for the next 150 years of public higher education.”

Land Grant universities (LGU) have a rich heritage, and have made major contributions, directly and indirectly, to the quality of life of people everywhere. At a glance, all of the horn tooting, chest thumping, and D.C. politicking surrounding the event seem well and good.

Look closer, however, and there are symptoms of a serious disease organism, hopefully not one that’s incurable.

The problem is that common people are glaringly absent from the invitation list.

Take, for example, the APLU “Media Advisory” statement, “Hundreds of attendees from academia, philanthropy, government and industry will take part in this historic event.” University administrators with quite impressive pedigrees — Chancellors, Presidents, Deans and the like — and a few people of money dominate the list of over 500 attendees.

So what’s the problem?

Land Grant universities were intended to be the “Peoples’ Universities,” with a three part mission of teaching, research and service for common people, ordinary people, the working class, the middle class in American society. People like me.

My family has benefitted from, and had close ties, to the LGUs for much of their history. My grandfather was a founding member of a Corn Club organized in 1906 with encouragement of Extension leaders at Oklahoma State University. In 1907 the Corn Club became the first 4-H Club in Oklahoma. My mother became an Extension Home Economist in 1935, and I have been a professor at several LGUs spanning 40-years. I have been well paid, tenured and had a personally rewarding career.

I write this article not out of dissatisfaction with my life as a professor, but because I think the LGUs are drifting away from their mission as providing help and education for common people like my family and me.

Who You’re Dancing With

Looks like the LGU administrators forgot the sage agrarian advice to “dance with them what brung you.”

It’s an expensive dance, too, this convocation. Travel expenses alone will total well over a million dollars. Add to this the cost of a day or two of time for over 500 attendees with an average salary and benefit package averaging $300,000-$500,000 annually and the Convocation looks more line a Millionaires’ Grand Ball than the Peoples’ Barn Dance.

Especially troubling is the APLU claim that “… (the) keynote addresses and more … (will) headline a day that will help set the agenda for the next 150 years of public higher education.” Isn’t there something just plain wrong when a group of elites set the agenda for the Peoples’ Universities?

Socioeconomic characteristics of “The People” have admittedly changed dramatically during the 150 years, from a largely isolated, agrarian population to a largely wired urban population. Are the basic educational and research needs of the “New People” all that different than in the distant past?

Sen. Justin Smith Morrill, the Vermont senator who authored the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act that established federal funding for a universities that were given the job of educating and helping the “sons of toil” — working the nation’s lands in the 1800s. The Morrill Act was passed in 1862.

Agrarian People or New People? Same needs or different needs? The answers don’t matter here. What matters is that none are represented at the Convocation.

LGU administrators, particularly in Extension, have held “listening sessions” out in the hinterlands on and off for years. I think they actually listen. But the force of circumstances has resulted in a situation where the LGU administrators appear to exhibit stolid disregard for views expressed at these sessions.

The word democratization jumps out of the first sentence of the APLU announcement. Yes, it is true that the Morrill Act “laid the groundwork for democratization of public higher education,” making education within the reach of sons and daughters of working families, and not just the elite.

But what is democratic about this self-selected group setting the LGU agenda for the next sesquicentennial?

Incentives Matter

Truth is that elites in government and business have been increasingly influencing and often subtly setting the agenda — especially the research agenda — in LGUs for some time.

What happened during evolution of the LGUs? Incentives changed. If all of economic knowledge were condensed into two words, they would be “incentives matter.”

Federal cuts in Extension funding in 1983 marked the beginning of the downward trend in public support for LGUs. At that time, most LGU administrators anticipated that they were on a downward trend in federal and state support.

Yet many administrators, rather than live within their means, responded to internal pressure and often made the decision to keep faculty positions. (Administrators also face perverse incentives!) Keeping faculty came at the expense of the support base. Now many ag faculty no longer have adequate support funds to conduct research and outreach programs.

Consequently they must seek grants.

Allocation of federal agricultural research funds also changed, as some of the funding was channeled into so-called competitive grants available to any university — LGU, non-LGU state university, or private university.

Who has the grant money? The Department of Agriculture has funds, which allows bureaucrats to have more influence on the research agenda than local people.

Big business has funds, which allows corporate interests rather than local interests to set the research agenda. Business is particularly interested in funding university research because it can capture benefits by patenting the ideas generated by faculty.

Worse yet, corporate grants typically leverage some public taxpayer support, which is nothing more than a taxpayer subsidy for research to aid corporations that generate billions in profits.

We now have a few LGU Presidents serving on corporate boards, getting paid as much (if not more) serving the corporation as they do supposedly serving the peoples’ university. Why are blatant conflicts of interest like this tolerated?

The University Turning Inward

Another critical development is that faculty turned inward.

Past LGU successes came from the universities being “connected” to the general public and from being responsive to that public. Now many are simply conducting research and publishing for their peers, or chasing funding.

As LGU faculty turned inward, they became increasingly disconnected with agriculture and unresponsive to people needs. In short, faculty became privateers in an Ivory Tower.

Agriculture Professor Booker T. Whatley, a product of a family farm and Land Grant universities, noted the isolation of LGU ag faculty:

My quarrel is with the land grant college bunch, because they very seldom have a really new idea, let alone one that’s going to do something good for the farmer. They all think exactly alike.

Why is that? They were trained to think that way. They all went to the same schools and listened to the same bunch of professors who had done exactly the same thing when they went to school. It’s like a big social club, a fraternity. And everybody thinks everybody else is just great, because they all think the same way.

No new ideas? They all think the same way? (Or don’t think at all?). Troubling,but too often true.

Over a decade ago, Distinguished Iowa State University Professor of both Law & Economics Neil Harl (J.D. and Ph.D.) who gave over 3,000 outreach talks in his academic career, said it best:

Food and Water Watch As public research money has declined, Land Grant professors increasingly seek funding from private sources, primarily those in the agriculture business.

Returning to my worries, my greatest concern is that the land grant university is on a trajectory that will narrow, dramatically, the traditional constituency of the land grant university to the point of invisibility. In my view, that would be a tragic legacy to leave future generations that will surely struggle with change in their world just as we have struggled with change in ours.

The difference may well be that future generations will lack the willing partner that has helped our generation to understand and cope with that change. My other concern is that the university itself will be forever transformed by outside influences to such an extent that the legacy of the university will be substantially diminished.

So it comes down to a question, primarily, of who is our constituency? Is it students, future generations who benefit from the great body of transmitted knowledge and, indeed, all of society? Or will the constituency be narrowed with a focus on a relatively small group of peers in the discipline and large private sector firms with almost imperceptible attention to students, the transmission of culture and those in society who have benefited so much from their land grant university?

That choice is being made day by day.

Land Grant universities and public education in general are the centerpiece of democratization of America and progress for common people. But the convocation that begins Tuesday morning, its news releases and elite attendance list are, in my opinion, signs of a broader socioeconomic disease that is moving us from a representative democracy to what is sometimes described as plutocracy, oligarchy, corporatocracy, and, at times, more pejorative phrases.

The LGUs are being pulled along and increasingly influenced by a force that threatens the very soul of American democracy and the American Dream for common people.

The force is favoring the few over the many, in the LGU system and in American society generally.

A convergence of problems with peak oil, global warming, environmental degradation, carbon sequestration, bio-terrorism, so-called free trade, vertical integration, consolidation, too big to fail, low farm income, declining rural areas, an unsustainable trade deficit, unsustainable

American debt, growing corporate control over government, a system quickly moving from one person one vote to a system of one dollar one vote, and many other social and economic issues has led one writer to say that the emerging era may become known as “the long emergency.”

Periods of stress — emergencies — often provide the most opportunity. Will the Peoples’ Universities seize this opportunity to help the “New People” avoid a long emergency, or at least to help them through a long emergency?

Not if we let the elite attendees and keynote speakers at the Convocation “set the agenda for the next 150 years of public higher education.”

C. Robert Taylor is the Alfa Eminent Scholar and Professor of Agriculture and Resource Policy, Agribusiness and Concentration at Auburn University.