Q&A: The future of land-grant universities

--Kristin Tyndall, Senior Editor

In a time of rising public skepticism about the value of higher ed, one type of institution is ideally placed to bridge the gap between campuses and communities, according to E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University, and Stephen M. Gavazzi, professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University.


Sally Amoruso
Executive Principal, EAB

In a new book, they argue that land-grant institutions should become leaders in re-inventing American higher education and re-engaging local communities. EAB Executive Principal Sally Amoruso recently caught up with Gee and Gavazzi to ask a few questions about their book, Land-Grant Universities for the Future: Higher Education for the Public Good.

(Note: The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: Why now? What is it about this moment in time that made you feel like this discussion had to happen?

Gee: I’d been following Steve’s research on this area, and one day we started talking about how the land-grant university has lost its bearings. We wanted to discover why that was and how one could right that ship.

Gavazzi: We wanted to revive the land-grant mission. The way we saw it, since land-grant universities were established, they’ve had a commandment to create a covenant with the people, they’re the people’s university. And we wanted to see how other land-grant university leaders were thinking about this, so President Gee co-wrote a letter with Ohio State University President Michael Drake to all the other land-grant university presidents. And within a week, 27 of them accepted our invitation for an interview, and that’s what our book is based on.

Q: It seems like it was a pretty diverse group in terms of backgrounds and perspectives. What were some of the divergent perspectives that you uncovered in the interviews?

Gavazzi: We found that there were a few common themes, but for each of those, the interviews spanned a range of thinking. For instance, the one that’s most common on every president’s mind is funding. On the one hand, there’s the concern about the funding declines. But on the other, there’s the necessary attention that needs to be paid to becoming a more efficient enterprise.

Gee: And that issue gets right to the core of the land-grant mission. As the people’s institution, we should be leaders in re-imagining the way the American public university looks. But too many of our colleagues have wanted to become like every other institution.

Q: In what areas have you seen the land-grants move away from that original mission?

Gee: I think it’s a number of things, but in general, I think it’s that too many of us are striving to be elite, research institutions instead of trying to be public entity institutions. In this century, the notion of being very committed to communities, community building, and job creation is very important, and we don’t talk about that enough. But the real issue is that many of our institutions, land-grant and otherwise, have become disassociated from the needs of the states and people they represent.

Q: What did you see driving that trend?

Gee: One reason it happens is that the kind of work the land-grant universities were really established to do, which was to be engaged in agriculture, mechanical arts, and engineering, just isn’t valued as much.

Gavazzi: There’s enormous pressure on land-grant universities to be more like all the other universities and to be pre-eminent in research. For example, the current rankings system has contributed to this pressure to chase the best and brightest students, which can be great, but it means that we leave out a lot of the working-class sons and daughters that we were originally designed to educate.

Related: We asked 100+ presidents about the state of higher ed. Here's what they said.

Q: What advice do you have for presidents and leadership teams of land-grants at this moment in time?

Gee: I think we need to re-invent the land-grant university to be very focused on education, health care, and job creation. It’s great to discover the cure for cancer, I want to do that. But what I want to do even more is make certain that for the people in southern West Virginia, which has an immense problem with opioids, that our university is viewed as the hope for those folks. The land-grant university needs to turn hopelessness into hope and despair into opportunity.

Gavazzi: There are so many silos on campuses that end up hurting us, and we’re not able to conduct business the way that would help us be a more nimble, business-friendly, community and economic development engine. Our structures are set up in a way that prevents change.

Q: Your book in many ways is a clarion call, a rallying cry to take hold of the reins and make change. What would success look like for the land-grants in the next 10-15 years from today if they were really listening?

Gavazzi: The stakes are getting higher and higher. We’re seeing a rapid escalation of a lot of issues that are driving us in directions that we don’t know how to manage. And at the same time, the support base under which we normally operate is eroding, in large part because of our inability to create a narrative about who we are and what we do.

I went to a state legislative conference to present on land-grant universities, and afterward, several legislators came up to me and asked, “Who’s my land-grant university?” They didn’t even know, which is a huge problem.

Gee: Yes, it is a huge problem. I think that the land-grant university of the future is going to be one that is very agile, despite being very big, as most land-grants are. And how do you become agile? You blow up the structures, you blow up the way you reward and recognize people.

Gavazzi: If we embrace our land-grant heritage, we can begin to facilitate a dialogue with higher ed and our communities. When we use the word “engagement,” it still sounds like we’re the ones doing something, but if we become part of the fabric of the community and look for ways to convene our community, that’s different, because then what we’re doing is giving a platform.

Gee: There’s a rural-urban divide in this country, and I think the land-grant universities in many ways are the gap-fillers, because they do represent the best of what is rural. We’re about being weavers, we’re not about being elitist.

Q: Do you feel that the narrative around the value of higher ed is linked to this lack of grounding for the land-grants and their original mission?

Gavazzi: Yes, absolutely, 100%. At the very end of our last chapter, we have a section called Making America Great Again and The Audacity of Hope. And what we really talk about in that chapter is that universities need to become a marketplace of ideas again. We really need to be the adults in the room who bring disparate folks together and say, you know, there’s a way of having civil discourse about what it is that we’re doing. It’s a land grant university’s obligation to be that marketplace.


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