The Global Land-grant University – A Reflection of Market or Mission?

Virginia Tech and several of its peer institutions are increasingly using the term “global land-grant” university as a means to describe and to garner support for their emergent international influence and presence.   Virginia Tech’s twenty-one page strategic plan references the “global” context seventeen times and its accompanying strategy for Global Engagement and Competiveness explicitly declares, “Virginia Tech is a global land grant university impacting (sic) the state, the nation, and the world” (Envisioning Virginia Tech 2012-2018 Global Engagement and Competitiveness 2012).  Among Virginia Tech’s twenty-five peer schools,[1] sixteen are land-grant universities; of that number, seven have referred to themselves in public documents as “global land-grant” institutions, with Cornell, Michigan State and Pennsylvania State universities most aggressively employing the moniker.

As one who embraces the ideal of the land-grant mission as linking new knowledge and understanding to its practical application for the collective good, I am inspired that we are framing the land-grant philosophy in ways appropriate to our increasingly interconnected global environment. However, I struggle with relating the historical foundations of the relatively localized engaged university concept to the global context without more specific assurances concerning the ultimate goals of the expanded model.  A brief overview of the history of the land-grant institution and its evolution supplies the framework for an inquiry into whether the term currently conveys a catchy but vague concept for measuring a university’s market reach, or a deliberate strategy for true global engagement in the land-grant tradition. The goal of this reflection is not to provide an answer to this question, but to begin establishing the scaffolding on which such an inquiry can adequately be conducted.

The Morrill Act of 1862 authorized the federal government to give each state 30,000 acres of federal land for each member of its Congressional delegation.  This land was sold or otherwise employed by the state to found public institutions of higher education with an initial focus on expanding agricultural science and the mechanical arts.  The land-grant university concept emerged during the mid-1800s and was largely ushered to legislative success by Vermont Congressman Justin Morrill, a Republican who faced Democratic opposition to the proposal on the basis that the act would expand federal influence on state-level institutions.  Initially passing both houses in 1858, the legislation was vetoed by President James Buchanan, but was reintroduced following the secession of the Southern states. President Abraham Lincoln signed the act into law in 1862 (O’Hara, accessed 11/29/2013).

The principal aim of this public investment was to provide access to higher education to the masses as a means to stimulate economic growth as well as to create and disseminate knowledge, and to support its practical application.  The land-grant university was to serve these ends by means of a threefold mission – teaching, research and extension (Schuh 1986).   Congress expanded the Morrill Act first in 1890 to support historically African-American universities, and most recently in 1994 to include Native American tribal colleges (Lee 2002).  Historians and scholars credit the statute and its later additions as among the great policy initiatives in United States history aimed at raising equity and mobility across socioeconomic, racial and cultural lines (Kerr 1994; Green 1999; Trow 2000).   Although not precisely delineated in the initial 1862 legislation or its later iterations, the overarching land-grant mission emerged as:

  1. Increasing access to higher education for underrepresented and minority populations, and
  2. Encouraging the development and application of knowledge to advance the common good (Trow 2000; Colasanti, Wright & Reau 2009).

For land-grant universities the “common good” has generally been defined as improving the overall well-being – health, security and economic status – of the population(s) served. Today, these institutions are expanding the reach of their activities across the globe at the nation state, regional and community levels, requiring a fresh look at their mission definition (Denuelin & Townsend 2007).

The late renowned agricultural economist G. Edward Schuh called upon land-grant universities in a 1986 article to, “regain relevance” and to expand their salience internationally by refocusing their three-part mission of teaching, research and extension to address the globalization of societal problems, and the rapidly increasing connectivity between national economies.   Schuh pointed to the failure of U.S. higher education institutions to acquaint students adequately with the growing complexities and interconnectivity of the international economy.   When one views his statements in the shadow of our recent deep global recession, Schuh’s argument, offered nearly thirty years ago, appears prescient:

Challenges related to international institutions are as great as those facing domestic institutions. Economic integration has far outpaced our political integration.  Many of the international institutions which we helped design at the end of World War II have either broken down, disappeared, or grown increasingly irrelevant.  We find ourselves in each other’s way economically, with little or no means to resolve conflicts and make policy choices in a systemic way.  In some respects we are like the 13 colonies at the time of the Articles of Confederation. We need a new world constitution to reflect the changed realities of the world. Who is to design it? Will we let these issues drift on – possibly until we suffer an international collapse on the order of the 1930’s? (1986, page 9).

Schuh called for dismantling structures in higher education that promote specialization and isolation in favor of organizations and strategies that encourage the integration of disciplinary approaches and the application of the knowledge they produce to real world situations. The former Dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs also called for increased authority for university administrators to focus the combined talents of individual faculty members toward a shared, reimagined land-grant mission.

Nearly twenty years after Schuh published his call to action, Steven Brint offered fresh reflections on how research universities, including land-grants, might address the imperatives of globalization in  “Creating the Future: New Directions for American Research Universities” (Brint 2005).   Based on 144 interviews with higher education institutional leaders, Brint argued that unprecedented financial growth among elite research universities during the previous two decades had allowed those institutions to circumvent a “market consciousness” that had otherwise emerged during the same time frame as a driving force shaping strategy and program development for less fiscally secure universities (2005, page 1).  Brint contended that elite private schools enjoyed an unprecedentedly strong financial position, which could and should be used to protect the standards of higher education from short-term consumer demand. He also suggested that our nation’s finest public institutions must develop a similar “buffering capability,” in order to safeguard the mission of higher education from fleeting market trends. However, just two years after publication of Brints’ article, the great recession severely weakened the financial positions of both private and public universities and undermined their ability to expand educational opportunities and engagement to underserved populations, or to new regions of the world.

While both Schuh and Brint called for a reexamination of the roles and strategies of higher education institutions in the global context, Schuh suggested that such efforts be mission driven, while Brint argued that institutional goals could best be protected by the financial vitality of universities, a strength that depended in part on often unstable market forces.  It is telling and ironic that much of the strategy Brint recommended has since been severely limited by the recession, which itself was largely fueled by the dysfunction of global financial markets, a turn that Schuh foretold.

Within this context, if United States land-grant universities are to seek to realize their missions globally, a prerequisite to such engagement should be the deliberate extension of educational opportunities, research and outreach services to carefully targeted populations in ways that support the public good in that state or region. Colasanti, Wright and Reau (2009) have outlined criteria that should guide all land-grant interactions with potential community partners, wherever they may be located:

  • Integrity,
  • Community/common good,
  • Insights/knowledge/education,
  • Teamwork/collaboration/empowering people,
  • Success/achievement outcomes,
  • Entrepreneurship/innovation, and
  • Stability/ sustainability.

While adequate financial support is necessary to initiate global land-grant mission-driven strategies, consistent adherence to these guiding criteria will help to maximize such efforts’ impacts. Assuming adequate support can be secured and our own university, and its peer institutions maintain focus and expand globally in collaborative ways, we must be driven by mission, not market, if our collective efforts are to be productive and sustainable.  Expanding global knowledge, collaboration, and engagement that is context and mission specific promises to be not only challenging, but also immensely rewarding to the land-grant universities and stakeholders involved.


Brint, S. (2005). Creating the future: ‘New directions’ in American research universities. Minerva, 43(1), 23-50.

Colasanti, K., Wright, W., & Reau, B. (2009). Extension, the land-grant mission, and civic agriculture: Cultivating change. Journal of Extension, 47(4), 1-10.

Deneulin, S., & Townsend, N. (2007). Public goods, global public goods and the common good. International Journal of Social Economics, 34(1/2), 19-36.

Green, K. C. (1999). When wishes come true: Colleges and the convergence of access, lifelong learning, and technology. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 31(2), 10-15.

Kerr, C. (1994). Expanding Access and Changing Missions: The Federal Role in US Higher Education. Educational Record, 75(4), 27-31.

Lee, W. Y. (2002). Culture and institutional climate: Influences on diversity in higher education. The Review of Higher Education, 25(3), 359-368.

O’Hara, Steven.  Lincoln & Morrill: Passing the 1862 Morrill Act. Retrieved 11/29/2013 from

Schuh, G. E. (1986). Revitalizing land grant universities. Choices, 1(2), 6.

Trow, M. (2000). From mass higher education to universal access: The American advantage. Minerva, 37(4), 303-328.

Virginia Tech Office of Long Rang Planning (2012).   Envisioning Virginia Tech 2012-2018 Global Engagement and Competitiveness 2012.  Retrieved 11/24/13 from .



[1] Peer institutions designated by the Virginia State Council for Higher Education.


Mary Beth Dunkenberger has been the Senior Program Director and research faculty at the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance since 2007. In her capacity as Senior Program Director, Mary Beth provides leadership in aligning research, technical assistance and capacity building support with public agency and non-profit needs.  Mary Beth also provides direct research and technical assistance and oversight of projects in the areas of program and policy design, implementation and evaluation.   A particular focus of Mary Beth’s work is on public policy and on programs serving vulnerable populations, including low-income families, veterans and at-risk youth.  Her projects are undertaken with thoughtful consideration of existing policies, organizational business practices, and the environmental and political contexts in which agencies operate.  Mary Beth’s related academic, research and outreach interests are focused on developing enhanced connections between social programs, economic and community dynamics in our rapidly evolving global context.

Mary Beth received a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Commerce from the University of Virginia and a Master’s of Business Administration from George Washington University. She is a Ph.D. student at the Virginia Tech Center for Public Administration and Policy.  Mary Beth is honored to be part of an organization of thoughtful, intelligent and passionate faculty, staff and students, who work diligently and creatively to improve the communities and world in which we live.

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