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Higher ed researcher: Land-grant act's 150th is an occasion to revitalize mission for the future

Scott Peters

For Scott Peters, the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Act provides the perfect opportunity not only to reflect on the history and heritage of the land-grant mission, but also to have thoughtful conversations about its future.

Peters, associate professor of education in the Department of Horticulture, devotes much of his research to studying American higher education's public mission and work. He pursues both a historical line of inquiry into the origins and early development of the national land-grant system as well as an examination of the civic engagement work and experiences of contemporary academic professionals and community-based extension educators; he does this mainly through the development and analysis of oral histories.

His research has been published in several journals, and his books include "Engaging Campus and Community: The Practice of Public Scholarship in the State and Land-Grant University System" (2005), "Catalyzing Change: Profiles of Cornell Cooperative Extension Educators" (2007) and "Democracy and Higher Education: Traditions and Stories of Civic Engagement" (2010).

Peters participated in the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities' national celebration of the Morrill Act sesquicentennial in Washington, D.C., June 26. He has also contributed the closing chapter for a book, "The Land Grant Colleges and the Reshaping of American Higher Education," to be released this summer. In it, he explores the ways in which the story of the land-grant system has been told throughout history, as heroic meta-narrative, tragic counter-narrative and prophetic counter-narrative. The book includes the papers that were published as part of a 2011 Penn State conference, "The Legacy and the Promise: 150 Years of Land-Grant Universities."

Since its infancy, the mission of the land-grant system has been difficult to define, he said. It has been debated, contested, reshaped and rethought throughout its history and continues to evolve today.

To Liberty Hyde Bailey, the first dean of Cornell's College of Agriculture (now the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences), the land-grant college was valuable because it brought ivory tower academia "close to the ground."

"The university belongs to the people of the state. It will justify its existence only as it serves the people," Bailey said in 1907.

Cornell's close-to-the-ground relationships -- institutionalized through such mechanisms as Cornell Cooperative Extension -- continue to set it apart from Harvard, Yale and other universities with public missions, Peters said. Ruby Green Smith, who wrote a history of Cornell's extension work in 1949 that will be republished by Cornell University Press in 2013, said that extension not only makes better farmers, businesses and communities, but also better colleges.

In the land-grant system, communities inform research as much as research informs the community.

Instead of simply being experts prescribing solutions to peoples' problems, scientists and scholars at Cornell work in collaboration with anyone, from farmers and business owners to policymakers and schoolchildren, Peters said. They play important civic roles, sometimes even engaging in "shuttle diplomacy" as they help opposing factions work together on public issues and problems.

"Extension is about more than just fixing technical problems and ramping up the economy; while important, these things are only part of what we do today, and have done historically," he said.

How should the land-grant mission be fulfilled in the future?

"The budget cuts we have been experiencing in recent years have eroded our capacity to deliver on the public-engagement and relational pieces of our work," Peters said. "But we still have tremendous resources to tap and utilize."

In examining how the land-grant mission fits into the overall mission of a research university, different perspectives need to be explored, Peters said.

"There's something in the spirit of the land-grant system and mission that is enduring and compelling," he said. "It represents and embodies some of our highest and best ideals and values -- including our belief in and commitment to democracy. It's both a challenge and a responsibility to carry it forward into this century, not as an antique museum piece, but a living, evolving and dynamic force in our public life and work."


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Claudia Wheatley