The Corner

Education

Universities for the Future

Cornell University (Wikimedia Commons)

Much of today’s conversation surrounding the state of American universities centers around what goes on in elite colleges. To some extent this coverage is not surprising, of course: The “Ivy Plus” schools wield enormous cultural influence and are responsible for educating America’s future leaders. Nevertheless, non-elite colleges teach the vast majority of American students. Unfortunately, many of those who work in journalism or academia spend most of their time in wealthy urban environments, so the perspectives of people who come from poorer or more rural regions are frequently overlooked.

Against this background of culturally homogenous commentary on the universities comes a welcome intervention in the form of a new book, Land-Grant Universities for the Future: Higher Education for the Public Good. Stephen Gavazzi, a professor at the Ohio State University, has partnered with West Virginia University president E. Gordon Gee to refocus the college debate. As the volume’s title indicates, Gavazzi and Gee mainly discuss the state of land-grant universities, but their suggestions are more generally illuminating.

Land-grant universities, the authors explain, were first established by the 1862 Morrill Act. In the midst of the Civil War, Congress began to apportion federally owned land to each state government for the purposes of building and nurturing institutions of higher learning. More land-grant universities were created through subsequent legislation, most notably with the 1890 Morrill Act. Land-grant universities were originally designed to focus on applied research, particularly in the fields of agriculture and engineering. In more recent times, they have diversified their academic pursuits even as they retain identities concentrated on those areas.

Engagement with local communities has always been, and continues to be, a key part of the land-grant’s mission. By contrast, especially at the elite level, many American universities have shifted some of their focus toward making global connections in their attempts to prepare students to enter a globalized workforce. Gavazzi and Gee do not oppose global outreach as such, but they would prefer for land-grant schools, situated in more rural areas as they often are, to spend their resources encouraging students and faculty to engage with local communities through business and civic associations.

Land-grant universities, Gavazzi and Gee point out, are typically their respective states’ public flagship institutions, as with University of Florida. They therefore tend to receive substantial subsidies from state government, so land-grant universities have traditionally devoted themselves to teaching the poorer sectors of society, or the “sons and daughters of toil,” as Gavazzi and Gee phrase it. Thus, argue the authors, such universities must maintain a standing commitment to promoting the common good — both of their respective state and of the United States more broadly. (A few weeks ago, I attended a debate between First Things editor R. R. Reno and Columbia University professor Mark Lilla. Although they had their fair share of disagreements, both agreed that U.S. universities sometimes ran the risk of forgetting that they were American universities, and that this makes them responsible not just for furthering their students’ careers and their faculties’ research, but the good of U.S. society more generally. Gavazzi and Gee’s suggestions, then, are well taken.)

Gavazzi and Gee are also keen to note what they call the United States’ “capital/country divide.” By “capital” they mean major U.S. cities such as New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and the like. By “country” they mean, well, most of the rest of the nation. The values espoused by the residents of each region — secular, progressive, and cosmopolitan in the former case; religious, conservative, and nationalist in the latter — are diverging from each other with dizzying rapidity. Land-grant universities, argue Gavazzi and Gee, must make greater efforts to appeal to both constituencies so that divisions in the social fabric can more easily heal.

Alienating either rural dwellers or urbanites, moreover, imperils the mission of the university. If one constituency feels excluded, its levels of support for universities will decrease, and so will the willingness of its residents to fund colleges with their tax dollars. (Indeed, land-grant universities have struggled financially in recent years because state governments have been more reluctant to provide them with public monies.) Thankfully, Gavazzi and Gee are not the first to notice the dangers caused by the universities’ neglect of rural communities. Heterodox Academy, an organization committed to increasing viewpoint diversity in U.S. colleges, has also been pushing for a greater inclusion of the perspectives of students from rural backgrounds.

Land-Grant Universities for the Future does have its flaws. Some passages resort to vague rhetoric about the importance of “increased engagement,” “commitment to communities,” and so forth, without much in the way of concrete proposals. For instance, although the authors are entirely right to call for a greater inclusion of rural and low- socioeconomic-status perspective in the academy, they do not explain precisely how such an inclusion is to happen. Yes, there is clearly a problem with viewpoint diversity in the academy. Now how are we going to solve it? Readers are not given much guidance.

Despite these shortcomings, however, the book remains a useful addition to a growing literature on how universities might best be made to serve the changing needs of American society.

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