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on May 12, 2011

Value of land-grant colleges, universities

Are these federally supported agriculture institutions really worth the cost?

Dr. Mark R. McLellan, dean and director of the Florida Agriculture Experiment Station, offered a plea for increased funding for land grant universities. With increased demands on state budgets and a decline in revenue, the current economic situation is forcing legislators to reduce support for institutions established by the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890.

The original concept involved ceding federally owned land to states to develop or sell to raise funds and endow land-grant colleges and universities. Their specific function would be to impart knowledge of scientific agriculture and engineering to the young citizens of the states.

The program was strengthened by the Hatch Act of 1887, which provided funds to establish experiment stations to develop and disseminate technology and improve agricultural production.

The third leg of the initiative was the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which funded cooperative extension to actualize research and training offered by the experiment stations and land-grant institutions.

McLellan's thoughts

McLellan emphasized the role of land-grant colleges and universities in education. He cites the top 10 public universities enrolling more than 350,000 undergraduates. He emphasizes the value of research conducted by these institutions and the ability to spread knowledge and concepts to “the nation’s farmers, the food industry, the restaurant industry, educators and those who can put good use to the know-how”.

His thesis is that investment in land-grant institutions provides benefits, which justify state and federal financial backing. He maintains that constraining programs and paring funding will have a negative impact on the wellbeing of our nation.

Out-of-date system?

The introductory paragraph to this commentary laid emphasis on the development of the system in the second half of the 19th century. However, this arises the question: Has the land-grant system kept pace with the needs of society and the position of America in a world economy?

There is doubt as to the validity of research or even the justification for many experiment stations which appear to function in isolation. Committed to obscure crops and pursuing programs of doubtful relevance these sacred cows can neither be milked nor slaughtered.

The land-grant system imposes a high level of administrative duplication as any faculty member can attest. Land-grant institutions certainly can produce a good crop of chancellors, directors, deans, “deanlings” and “deanlets” all requiring support in the form of “overhead”.

The prevailing impression among working faculty is that “those that can’t, teach and those that can’t teach, administer”. Extension services vary widely in their effectiveness. Most large agribusiness concerns have developed their own R&D and technical services. This is based on the need for efficiency in addition to confidentiality.

Other hardships at land-grant institutions

Disparity in salaries and resources between extension personnel and in-company and industry association advisors reflects adversely on the perceived contribution of extension personnel many of whom, although dedicated, are poorly trained, inadequately remunerated and generally unproductive in the context of total agricultural output.

Research is constrained by the availability of funding. In many cases, land-grant institutions are able to erect buildings but have inadequate funding for equipment, ongoing operation and staffing especially at the technical and support levels. Instructional activities, which were once critical to the needs of a post-bellum nation, are now subordinated to the imperative of raising extramural funding. An unacceptably high proportion of grant money is diverted to overhead, a euphemism to support administrators and the infrastructure they have created.

In discussion with scientists affiliated to multinational plant and livestock breeding companies, they reveal the problems associated with funding and conducting projects. The unrealistic expectations of land-grant institutions with respect to intellectual property and royalties have created rifts between academia and industry.

U.S. land-grant institutions are no longer the dominant force in agricultural development as competing nations have developed their own systems. Funding mechanisms are less cumbersome and freedom to pursue research, especially in areas of biotechnology that have leveled the world playing field in research instruction and adoption of agricultural and engineering technology.

Perhaps it would be more appropriate for McLellan from his lofty and extremely secure perch to re-evaluate the potential contribution of our land-grant institutions with particular concern for relevance and contribution. Perhaps concepts and solutions to problems existing 150 years ago are no longer relevant. Could it be that the entire land grant system requires evaluation, modification and restructuring? Could the bountiful resources that exist in endowments be used more productively?

To continually rely on USDA and state funding to support the behemoth represented by the land-grant system is untenable. Perpetuating an archaic system is contrary to the vision of the legislators who had the foresight to develop the funding mechanism. They would have wished for changes to ensure the technological advancement of agriculture to the benefit of all stakeholders, both domestic and international.  

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