Speak Your Piece: Preserving the People’s Universities

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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.

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[imgcontainer] [img:landgrant528.jpg] These are the nation’s Land Grant universities — the Peoples’ Universities. Click on the map to see a much larger version.

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

Tuesday morning, 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 “People’s 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 our 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 of 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 salary and benefit packages averaging $300,000-$500,000 annually and the Convocation looks more like a Millionaires’ Grand Ball than the People’s 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 sets the agenda for the People’s Universities?

Socioeconomic characteristics of “The People” have admittedly changed dramatically during the last 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 from those of the past? 

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