The land grant mission, rightly understood

The full vision of the land grant system is to empower the individual in the interest of building their futures and building their communities.

In public discourse, and even sometimes in higher education discourse, the land grant mission of universities is rhetorically reduced to the teaching of mechanical or technical skills. And no doubt, these skills are important and were an important focus of the land grant mission. But this interpretation is a thin understanding of the land grant purpose. The full vision of the land grant system was to empower the individual in the interest of building their futures and building their communities. This vision was about conveying the knowledge that would lead to both economic development and political development. The land grant mission also aimed to extend the learning of liberal education to a larger population in a growing country. It was profoundly democratizing at its core, sharing what we in CLA would call “the liberal arts advantage” with larger segments of the population. It was a profound boost to individual growth and community development, spreading beyond the elite strata of society the skills and knowledge that encourage civic engagement. Individuals would be transformed, but so would families, peer groups, and future generations.

At their deepest, the values of the land grant gave a growing number of individuals the ability to shape their own destiny and the destiny of their communities and states. One way of thinking about all this is that, with an eye toward national political and economic development, the core of the land grant mission was to help citizens, careers, and communities thrive. In CLA we are dedicated to doing all three. The 1862 Morrill Act creating the land grant system called for colleges and curriculum “that will promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.” An 1871 report from the founding agricultural college at one of our Big Ten peers notes that in addition to the sciences in its curriculum, “other studies are taken from the course in the College of Arts, making it parallel with that course and in all respects equal to it in the training and discipline which it will confer.” The meaning is plain: the land grant mission is not pursued at the expense of liberal education and must not neglect it. Indeed, it is built upon a foundation of the liberal arts and it fails without that foundation being strong. The land grant mission and the liberal arts missions in research, teaching, and engagement are inseparable. I am immensely proud of the role CLA and all of our faculty and staff play in defending and advancing these vital values. We should be bold, loud, and proud about letting everyone know.

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