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Mission to serve: How land-grant established CU's role in taking ideas from labs to streets

When Cornell University was born in 1865, it became New York state's first and only land-grant university -- a title it still holds today, although few people in the state know what that means.

Cornell's responsibility as a land-grant university requires the institution to dedicate itself to basic and applied research and, in the tradition of public service, to be equally dedicated to passing that knowledge on in meaningful and relevant ways throughout the state.

"When the Land-Grant Act first passed in 1862, the intent was to disseminate information to the industrial classes, including those engaged in some form of agriculture, the mechanical arts and commerce," said Francille Firebaugh, who recently retired as Cornell's vice provost for land grant affairs and special assistant to the president. "Today that mission is more complex and aims to serve many industries, businesses and people of all socio-economic classes and backgrounds."

Today's land-grant initiatives can range from pesticide use to the health benefits of pasta, from apparel design to disease treatments. As a focus on some of these programs, this monthly column will feature examples of how Cornell serves the state. At the heart of these stories will be how Cornell touches the lives of New Yorkers in meaningful ways.

When President Lincoln signed the federal land-grant measure, each state was to receive 30,000 acres of public land within its borders for each of its congressional senators and representatives. While no federal land in New York state was available for Cornell, the university did receive proceeds from land and related timber sales in Western states, principally Wisconsin. Those proceeds, along with gifts of land and money from Ezra Cornell, were used to establish Cornell University.

Originally, Cornell's land-grant mission was universitywide. Today, the mission applies to the four state contract colleges -- the College of Veterinary Medicine, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Human Ecology and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations -- along with the state-sponsored Agricultural Experiment Station at Geneva. However, the land-grant mission exists beyond those areas and, in fact, permeates through the university at all levels.

For example, Cornell research in genomics and the biomedical sciences has brought advances in understanding Alzheimer's disease that are being clinically applied to help patients at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Another example is the transfer of technology from Cornell to public use, such as software to help doctors diagnose lung cancer. Such transfers are facilitated by the Cornell Center for Technology, Enterprise and Commercialization (CCTEC), also referred to as "C-tech." Similarly, when the new Life Sciences and Technology Building is completed on the Cornell campus in 2007, it will include a business incubator to aid the commercial exploitation of Cornell-derived innovations and research.

This column also will reflect the fact that Cornell's land-grant mission has a powerful social function. For example, the College of Human Ecology helps prevent major societal ills, such as child abuse in dysfunctional families. And the School of Industrial and Labor Relations offers instruction on how human resource management can cope with differing cultural practices when companies operate in new environments.

Also to be followed will be the myriad activities of Cornell Cooperative Extension, which disseminates knowledge and services as varied as master-gardener workshops, HIV/AIDS intervention and advice on obesity and adult diabetes.

After almost a century and a half of fulfilling the land-grant mission, Cornell has developed a mature infrastructure for delivering services, said Nathan Fawcett, special assistant to the provost for state-related issues and a member of the land-grant affairs office.

"Through the Geneva and Ithaca Experiment Stations, the Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Industrial and Labor Relations Extension systems, biotechnology and supercomputing outreach services and other programs, knowledge now readily moves from the laboratories and offices to the street," he said.

In a 2002 speech, Firebaugh outlined objectives of the land-grant mission as "the conduct of basic and applied research for the public interest; the diffusion of scientific and practical knowledge through cooperative extension systems and other outreach mechanisms; and the offering of broad curricula with a blend of liberal and practical education that is accessible to students." Future columns will reflect this mission of serving the diverse activities and people of New York state.


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