Do public land grant universities serve the public good?

As the University of Massachusetts celebrates its 150th year (the “sesquicentennial” –  a word I can’t pronounce) there have been speeches and events and lots of discussion about our heritage as a land grant university.  This seems to me to be “all good.”

We recently had a groundbreaking ceremony establishing a new Agricultural Learning Center for example, within walking distance of the dorms and classrooms of campus, with the intention of providing students experience growing their own food.  There are lots of changes at “Mass Aggie” of late!

Again…. all good!

And yet, I wonder how many faculty, students and administrators are truly committed (or even understand) our land grant heritage.  This post explores our heritage and the commitment of the public land grant university to serve its public mission.

First, “land grant” is not about land…..  or at least, not in the way that many people associate the words “land grant” with farming.  While it is true that most of the original land grant universities were committed to scientific education for rural America and therefore developed agricultural research and education programs, “land grant” in fact, refers to the means of funding those universities.  Grants of federal land (mostly in the western United States), were made available to each state to sell in order to establish the first public colleges, the University of Vermont, and Kansas State University (which was the first public university established under the Morrill Act of 1862), and the University of Massachusetts.

According to the UMass webpage…. “UMass Amherst was born in 1863 as a land-grant agricultural college set on 310 rural acres with four faculty members, four wooden buildings, 56 students and a curriculum combining modern farming, science, technical courses, and liberal arts.”

Agriculture was indeed important to these public universities, primarily because while the urban areas of the nation were experiencing rapid growth and the beginning of prosperity, the rural areas were being left behind.  As a service to the larger public good, universities were established to help those in most need…. who happened to live in rural America and of course earned their livelihood farming.

Today, if we celebrate our land grant heritage as a commitment to farming, we are missing a deeper understanding of the mission of the public university to serve the public good (including farming, of course).  My concern is that after all of the celebrations of our agricultural heritage are over, the general public may be left with a question – so why are we still investing in a public university if their mission is to serve such a small percentage of the population (the farming community)?

Please don’t get me wrong….. I think it is important for the university to be proud of its heritage and continue to support agricultural research and education.  But I think the rationale for this support must be deeper than nostalgia for a time gone by.

We must recommit to serving the public good and in doing so continue to grow 21st century agricultural programs focused on the three sustainability objectives of economic vitality, environmental integrity, and social equity.  It is only by clearly articulating a commitment to a more sustainable agriculture that we may continue to expect public support!

There are many forms of agriculture in the world.  The dominant form is “industrial” in the sense that it is economically efficient and highly technical, and leaks toxins from their point of application, uses natural resources such as fossil fuel and water at rates greater than replacement, puts farmers and ranchers off the land, and results in an overfed but poorly nourished citizenry.  I believe we must be clear with the citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that this is NOT the sort of agriculture we support at the land grant university.

This is about the public good!

A clear understanding of how the land grant organization serves American citizens, those today and those yet to be born, is key to the future of the institution.  Most people agree that the system has an obligation to serve the public.  But we have difficulty talking about “who is the public ‑‑ and what is the public good?

Many of our research and education programs are designed not to serve “the public” but to serve particular publics, or special interest groups.  I propose that there are interests, common to all people which we might call “basic human needs” such as:

  • affordable and nutritionally adequate food;
  • adequate clothing and shelter;
  • a healthy, livable environment free of violence;
  • opportunities to provide for one’s livelihood; and
  • accessible educational opportunities.

Our teaching, research and outreach should serve these larger public goods by working with the farmers, consumers and communities dedicated to building a more local food production and distribution system.  This is truly “public work” and is consistent with a commitment to a more sustainable agriculture.

Students seem to have noticed the change at the University of Massachusetts, as the enrollment in our Sustainable Food and Farming major has grown from 5 students in 2013 to about 85 today.  Things are changing at UMass, and I’m hopeful that our commitment to our public mission will be sustained.

What do you think?  Please share your own thoughts in the comments box below.


Please share this post with friends.  For more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And also check out more posts.  You may be interested in the 2-year Associate of Sciences degrees in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture or the 4-year B.S. Sustainable Food and Farming major or other 4-year majors.  The UMass Extension program provides access to university resources to the citizens of the Commonwealth.



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