November 7, 2010

The Shrinking Scope of Our Land-Grant Mission

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The closure of the Department of Education and the subsequent response from many who are deeply concerned by this strategic move by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and by the University itself, is alarming. It is alarming because it calls attention to how differently this issue is thought about. I don’t want my words here to be anything more than a Ph.D. student deeply concerned about what’s going on.

The concern I have is different from much of the current conversation, including the reporting by The Sun and especially the editorial “Strategic or Predictable” and the subsequent response from Dean Kathryn Boor. I, with many others, have been involved in organizing other concerned individuals about what the closure of the Department of Education means. One of the common phrases mentioned is the loss of part of the “land-grant mission.” In the midst of many concerns and conversations, I want to stress why this is so important to me.

Cornell has, since its inception, struggled with being a land-grant institution as well as a premier university. By and large, however, the University has happily wedded its land-grant mission with its status as a research university. One conception of the land-grant mission has been focused on the dissemination of knowledge. We have tremendous researchers and laboratories in which we engage in important research for the public. Dean Boor notes that the land-grant mission is the guiding principle for everything that happens in CALS. I’d like to agree, and I think I can on some level, but I want to push back a bit about the mission. The list of examples provided in the dean’s letter to the editor includes biofuels research and the Community and Rural Development Institute, as well as 4-H workshops. All of these are part of the land-grant mission, but I would argue that it’s not all of it. There are competing — and conflicting — views of what it means to be a land-grant institution.

The problem with so much of the discussion about the land-grant mission simplifies that mission into a heroic metanarrative — to borrow a phrase from Professor Scott Peters, education — that limits the way we might think about the public mission of land-grant institutions. What’s not included in that list is the example of the educator embodying the democratic spirit of engaging citizens as equals rather than giving information to them to deter pests from destroying produce or to address something as far-reaching as sustainability. Liberty Hyde Bailey, a name that may only sound familiar because a hall bears his name, was one of these educators in our land-grant history who offered another approach to Cornell’s public mission. He wrote books such as What is Democracy? and The Holy Earth. In the latter he writes, “The college may be the guiding force, but it should not remove responsibility from the people of the localities, or offer them a kind of co-operation that is only the privilege of partaking in the college enterprises. I fear that some of our so-called co-operation in public work of many kinds is little more than to allow the co-operator to approve what the official administration has done.” What Bailey wrote about is more than translating research into usable information.

What I’m most concerned about with the loss of the department is the space in which conversations transcend the belief that issues are technical; that all we need to do is provide information or convene a workshop where experts let citizens know what they should do. Dean Boor notes, “we fully intend to provide the disciplinary knowledge (e.g. agricultural sciences, biology) upon which effective teaching must be based and to craft ways for students to obtain teacher certifications.” I want to challenge Dean Boor — and others — to not limit what “education” means here at Cornell. I am an Adult and Extension Education Ph.D. student. Most of my peers in other departments or colleges have no idea such a program exists. But what students in a course such as EDUC 6820: Community Education and Development would tell you is that education is not simply about getting certification or being in a classroom.

Education takes seriously that the most pressing issues our state, nation and world face are not simply technical. They are technical in some respect, but they are also political, cultural, ethical and even religious. Bailey wrote about this in 1915. Who will write about this in 2015?

This counter-narrative of the land-grant mission, albeit marginal throughout history, has been about engaging citizens and communities not as receptacles for information but as co-creators of knowledge. We have rich historical and contemporary examples of such work, but it was and will presumably continue to be on the periphery. The closure of the department signals a loss of space for complex questions to be thought about and engaged with. What I’m concerned about is the further narrowing of the land-grant mission as faculty and students are told by the institution that thinking about sustainability, for example, as something other than a purely technical and scientific issue isn’t valued. I’m glad that the only decision that has been made thus far is the closure of the department. I have great hope that we, the Cornell community, might engage one another constructively to ensure that we do indeed embody our mission as a land-grant university.

Timothy Shaffer is a Ph.D. student in Adult and Extension Education.  He may be contacted at tjs279@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Timothy Shaffer