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By Henry A. Fribourg

One important reason why the United States became a world power in the 20th century is the land-grant college, an American invention that helped support the agriculture that undergirded the nation's economy. The 1862 Morrill Act granted federal land to each state to provide financial resources for the establishment of an institution of higher learning in “agriculture and the mechanic arts.” The resulting colleges provided a nationwide higher-education system that made it possible for the children of farmers and urban workers to go to college at a reasonable cost. Within a short time, the colleges offered programs in physical and natural sciences to support the training they provided in agriculture and engineering, and their professors applied scientific principles to teaching and research in agriculture.
The land-grant colleges were the foundation of modern U.S. agricultural productivity and efficiency. In the middle of the 19th century, the typical American farmer could, with some difficulty, feed his immediate family; 150 years later, his successor, supported by capital investments and a well-developed societal infrastructure, could feed an additional 150 persons.

An unfortunate byproduct of that productivity has been an estrangement of the increasingly urban population from the source of their daily bread. Over the past 50 years there has been a sharp decrease in government support for agricultural research, teaching, and extension, with federal support, in particular, declining substantially. For many years, Congress regularly appropriated funds according to a formula that took into account the size of a state and its agricultural economy and population. The assurance of steady financial help made it possible for investigators to carry out important long-term (lasting five or more years) research projects that might not be particularly popular. Decreasing federal appropriations means that land-grant colleges are now supported mainly by the states, which have less and less money for the colleges because of other demands on tax revenues.

Now that the colleges are unable to persuade legislatures to restore appropriations to earlier levels, administrators expect faculty members to come up with the funds they need for their own research. That change fits well with the administrators' longstanding campaign for Congress to allocate funds among institutions not according to the traditional formula but based on competition among programs for support.

Superficially, replacing the formula with competitions seemed like a good way to reward merit. But in practice, the competitive approach made it harder for individual investigators to conduct long-term research because grants are typically for only one or two years. Additionally, when evaluators examined research proposals, they tended to rely on the reputations of large institutions and award most support to investigators at the most prestigious colleges.

In retrospect, the competitive system was the death knell for research at the majority of small and medium-size land-grant colleges, and may eventually diminish their teaching and extension programs, too. Those institutions no longer had the resources to conduct basic research if they were to continue to fulfill their traditional missions of education and using science for the betterment of agriculture and the public in their area, state, or region. Thus, in the last couple of decades, many small and medium-size institutions have become less and less able to compete in science at the national and international levels.

When new scientific breakthroughs occur, who will be able to adapt them to the exigencies of the real world? The applied scientists who could have done that will have retired or been fired, and the extension services designed to help producers or practicing professionals make use of the discoveries will have been closed. Unless we speak up now and convince legislators and administrators at land-grant colleges that the current trends will be disastrous in the long run, the great American experiment of combining research, teaching, and extension for the public good—so successful in the past—will become only a memory.


Henry A. Fribourg is a professor emeritus of forage-crops ecology
at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared
in The Chronicle for Higher Education.

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