The Land-Grant University of the 21st Century

Essays, Thoughts

Over the last year as our college and university engaged in developing our next strategic plan I have thought a lot about what it means to be a “land-grant university” in today’s world. Then I was invited to provide the keynote address to the annual meeting of the National Agricultural Alumni and Development Association. The theme of their conference was “Creativity Starts Here.”  This essay has grown out of my remarks that evening and as such has particular reference to agriculture and its concerns.

Creating the Future We Want

Although I didn’t know it, my introduction to land-grant colleges and universities came when I was just 6 years old, tagging along with my brother to the Cooperative Extension office in Gaithersburg, MD to learn how to make bread. 4-H became a part of my life even before I was old enough to officially join. I did demonstration and informative speeches, canned goods, learned photography (still a passion of mine), kept rabbits and sheep, judged consumer goods and poultry. (I even stole my first few kisses while in 4-H and my brother found his wife at 4-H camp, as had our grandfather.) While my academic background may give the impression that I have never been anything other than a bookworm and having grown up outside of DC might suggest I am simply a typical suburbanite, the experiences I had through 4-H, FFA, and our county fair have been deeply formative in my life.

I loved that the school I went to, Cornell University, was the only Ivy League school that was also a land-grant university and when I arrived here at Penn State in 2006 the first thing I did was ask to see the poultry barns. On my short 4 miles to work I pass horses, experimental fields, poultry, dairy, swine, turf grass and meat science buildings. “Green Acres is the place for me (Farm livin’ is the life for me!).”

Back to our Roots

We all know the history. Our institutions, both collegiate and collegial, are founded upon the basic premise that our society needed to provide “a broad segment of the population with a practical education that had direct relevance to their daily lives.”[1] All of this, I might add given my own academic background, without “excluding other scientific and classical studies.”[2]

There are many today who question the very viability of public universities in today’s world and the reduction in state funding brings doubt as to the relationship between the words “State” and “University.” But I believe strongly that there is a future for a land grant institution in the 21st century, but we must reimagine what that means in this new era. I think this can best be done by remaining focused upon this original mission, even if the nation and the states and commonwealths allow their own support to wane.