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The UA's Land-Grant Mission: Its Contemporary Relevance
This is the first feature in a week-long series devoted to exploring the historic and contemporary facets of the UA's land-grant mission.
The often-evoked land-grant mission represents the foundational basis for the University of Arizona's bond with Arizona communities along with its efforts to expand educational opportunities while helping to address important societal concerns.
But the mission – a 150-year-old charge enacted with the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 – was drafted during a time of widely different social contexts, financial and intellectual resources and national priorities.
So stands the question: How can the UA adhere to its land-grant mission given a contemporary, global context and as students, faculty and staff are engaged in research, teaching and service initiatives not constrained by state or even national boundaries?
“As when reading the U.S. Constitution, you have to put the Morrill Act document in its timeframe,” said Leslie P. Tolbert, UA's senior vice president for research.
“What makes us a land-grant institution are two ideas that come through to me loud and clear in the Morrill Act: education that is accessible to the general population and a rational, evidence-based approach for the conduct of daily business – business with a lowercase B,” Tolbert said. “The University of Arizona provides both.”
In addition to the Morrill Act, the subsequent Hatch Act of 1887 and Smith-Lever Act of 1914 informed the evolution of public land-grant institutions, said Shane Burgess, dean of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the UA's historic signature land-grant college. At the onset, the UA focused on teaching, research and outreach efforts in agricultural sciences, engineering, military sciences and classical studies.
But a change has occurred. It is not that the land-grant mission itself has changed with time, but its intended impact has.
At the UA, the land-grant legacy emphasizing educational access, research and outreach remains. But given societal shifts, demographic changes, enhanced technologies and also global and cross-border connections, the mission today is also about having simultaneous local and global impact in a broad range of areas.
In the case of CALS, as with colleges across the UA, Burgess said the land-grant mission today is about "delivering new knowledge for a new economy based in social, environmental and economic resilience."
Today, the emphasis is on developing a well-educated populace through access to higher education and having relevance and impact through the generation, sharing and application of new knowledge in ways that are locally relevant but that can also have global impact.
"When the Morrill Act was passed during the Lincoln administration, these great leaders envisioned higher education and knowledge production as critical to the economic, social and cultural well being of our great nation," said UA President Ann Weaver Hart.
"It is very important that we remember how the land-grant mission will help us going into the future," Hart said.
Local Focus, Global Relevance
The UA's land-grant focus has resulted in abundant benefits to communities throughout the state and across the globe.
Within Arizona, benefits come in many forms: expanded formal and informal educational opportunities, graduates and research contributing to local and regional economies, impact on community wellness in the form of volunteer activity and also other collaborations with community groups addressing pressing societal issues.
Likewise, the UA trains generation after generation of professionals – including educators, engineers and health-care professionals – who often are encouraged to remain in the state to make their professional contributions.
Beyond these impacts, though, are increasingly expansive global implications tied to the land-grant mission.
UA researchers are helping to sequence the genomes of major crops such as cereal grains and tomatoes to help improve crop production and yield within Arizona and in semi-arid regions around the world.
UA scientists are working to identify ways to for societies to adapt to climatic changes, to protect plant and animal life and aid both urban and more mobile communities in Arizona, and – again – around the world. Also, UA researchers are addressing health disparities throughout the state, which helps them to develop new treatments that have much broader application.
Beyond scientific research, knowledge and cultural exchanges are pervasive. University museums and archives support researchers from across the U.S. and other parts of the world. And UA students and faculty in music and dance share their creativity with artists and audiences around the globe.
"Clearly, agricultural innovation is still relevant and critical to our community, but we also believe that the University of Arizona is uniquely positioned to advance the land-grant mission into the 21st century and beyond to address current and emerging issues that influence our community," said John Paul Jones III, dean of the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Jones emphasized that the college understands that sustained community engagement is crucial, and embedded within the land-grant mission. That is true for those within the college and elsewhere.
"We recognize that our connections with those outside our institution are central to our mission. We do not view this as a one-directional relationship, where we simply share our work with the community," Jones said. "Building collaborative relationships with local communities also enhances the process of discovery for our faculty and students. We believe that sharing discoveries with the community through public education and outreach is essential to the contributions that land-grant institutions must make."
Thus, the land-grant mission means the University is not only invested, but embedded in the community in ways meant to be globally relevant.
"Arizona will be bigger, better, stronger and our companies will be more competitive if we see ourselves in national and global contexts, not simply state-bound," said Tolbert, also an Association of Public Land-Grant Universities board member. In July, Tolbert was called to address members of a U.S. House of Representatives committee about the continued importance of research institutions like the UA.
“The land-grant mission reminds us that we need to be responsive to Arizona’s needs, but it certainly does not restrict us,” Tolbert said. "The impact of what we do as a land-grant institution must reach beyond Arizona in order for us to be most helpful to Arizona.”
Take, for example, the UA's research activities alone. Last year, the UA faculty was involved in more than $600 million in research activities, the same year the UA produced 150 disclosures of new inventions and was issued 19 patents, according to an Arizona Board of Regents report released in June. The institution’s research enterprise places the UA among the top 20 public institutions in the nation.
Technology transfer in particular can aid with “the betterment of our people and the planet," said Len Jessup, dean of the Eller College of Management and the Halle Chair in Leadership, noting that in addressing industry needs, the UA first began offering a degree in commerce in 1913.
“The majority of our alumni are still in-state, actively participating in our economy. The land-grant mission is a living part of our heritage," Jessup said of the college, adding that Eller works closely with Tech Launch Arizona, a UA technology commercialization center, to aid in the movement of UA discoveries to market.
The Future of the Land-Grant Mission
Given that other public universities and community colleges are involved in currently relevant teaching and research, how does the UA’s effort to adhere to the land-grant mission make it different?
"In my view, it isn’t that our overall mission is so different, it’s that we take the land-grant mission very seriously," Tolbert said.
"It's about developing a stronger nation, not about states building borders around themselves and focusing inward. A strong nation needs a strong populace," she added. "Our prosperity and security are dependent on strong public research universities, and those include, very prominently, the land-grants."
The land-grant mission signals a social pact and a long-standing responsibility, said Keith Humphrey, the University's Dean of Students.
"As the land-grant university in Arizona, all aspects of the University have a key responsibility to the state of Arizona," Humphrey said.
Humphrey noted that within Student Affairs, for example, offices and programs like Early Academic Outreach are working to expand the college-going culture throughout the state, involving young students and their families in pre-college programming. He also noted that Career Services works to connect not only current UA students, faculty, staff and also alumni to jobs and careers.
"We know that when we create successful programs like these that the benefits will serve the student, their family and the state," Humphrey said. "Supporting the land-grant mission is important because we believe in the state of Arizona and want it to be successful. The UA is one of the major drivers of both economic and social culture in the state, and many of our programs reinforce those priorities."
Thus, UA's land-grant mission can be viewed as the driving force behind UA-based activities and the ever-expanding reach of its teaching and research initiatives beyond Arizona.
At its core, the land-grant mission today is about being responsive to the communities in which an institution is embedded, and that is something UA will continue to do as it sees itself embedded in local, national and global communities, Tolbert said.
"Morrill's point was that there is a special place for institutions of higher education as embedded entities that are central to community life and to community advancement," Tolbert said. "If we take our mission to be embedded in – and responsive to – our communities, then we are reminded every day that our focus should be educating students and expanding knowledge and the application of that knowledge, both locally and broadly."
The charge ahead is to continue collaborating with local communities and also the state and federal governments on pressing social issues. One such example is that the UA must continue to address issues around diversity while engaging communities that are transcultural and multilingual, as the College of Humanities continually works to do, said Mary E. Wildner-Bassett, dean of the UA College of Humanities.
Wildner-Bassett noted that the University must help society to engage in communities that are increasingly transcultural and multilingual, something her faculty and students do every day.
"Tradition tells us that a land-grant university had the mission to educate Americans for the new technologies and work in the new fields driven by the innovations of the industrial revolution. The mission was also to either continue to include or even to expand education in the liberal arts tradition," Wildner-Bassett said.
"In this way, faculty and our undergraduate and graduate students continue to contribute economically, culturally, and socially to Arizona, to the nation, and to transcultural understanding," she added.
Adhering to its land-grant mission, the UA will continue to engage in education, knowledge creation and the production of products that are relevant not only to Arizona, but also to the nation and the world.
"The land-grant mission will always be in our future, and we will always have to pay attention to that," Hart said.
"We are blessed with that assignment for the great state of Arizona," Hart said. "We are partners with our counties, with the federal government and with the state," Hart also said. "Each of us has a role, and that unique state-county-federal partnership will drive us into the future. That will never go away."