Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What’s in store for the Land Grant Universities?
by Wayne Vanderwert

Every so often I need to get on my soapbox, this is one of those occasions. What’s happening at your and my alma mater is a subject that we in the cattle business should start to think about.

First, I’ll establish the fact that I spent a fair number of years at three different land grant universities pursuing a bachelor’s, master’s and a doctorate in Animal Science. I also spent over five years in ag extension work; I’m not exactly an uninformed bystander.

Second, I have a lot of friends at land grant schools. People that I respect for their knowledge of livestock production, nutrition, breeding, physiology and meat science. These people have tremendous knowledge and the ability to convey that information to producers. This is not meant to be critical of them; in fact many of them share my concerns. They fight regularly to stay alive in a system that seems to appreciate their contribution less and less. They are the ones whose names you and I recognize and associate with our university. Their ranks are thinning.

The so-called “Land Grant” colleges were established by the Morrill Act of 1862, which gave each state 30,000 acres of land per member of the state’s delegation in Congress. The states in turn sold this land to establish a college focused on agriculture, engineering and military science--the priorities of the day.

What resulted for U.S. agriculture was research, training for young minds and dissemination of new information to agricultural producers in a system that was the envy of the rest of the world. In turn, it created a highly efficient agricultural production structure that was also admired worldwide. Not surprising that many countries send their brightest minds to study here in graduate programs.

But, the land grant system appears to be broken in some states; at the very least the system doesn’t relate to producers as well as it did in the past. There is even talk of doing away with the colleges of agriculture in some major agricultural states.

I can cite many examples where Animal Science departments and staff have lost contact with their state’s producer organizations, pass up recruitment opportunities at youth livestock events, even fail to show up at a state breed sale that is a few hundred feet from their office.

A former college teacher of mine, who is retiring this fall, pointed out that as an incoming freshman, he knew a majority of the Animal Science faculty members through his involvement in 4-H and FFA. Today, I suspect many livestock producers wouldn’t recognize the head of the department, by name or face, and have little contact with staff members.

A portion of the problem is that the system is a victim of its own success. It has fulfilled the government’s cheap food policy desires. As long as we enjoy ample supplies of high quality, safe food in this country, government funding for agriculture research will not be a priority. This has forced universities to be in the “research business”, to seek research money from other sources. That in turn has compromised the land grant’s mission of unbiased research and information. It also has eliminated much of the good applied research that needs to be done.

Additionally, part of the problem is self-inflicted. A misguided tenure system placed teaching and extension well below research several years ago. Ability to bring in research dollars became the focus for advancement. I imagine that counting published research papers is much simpler and less subjective than evaluating a good job of undergraduate teaching or extension outreach education. This has forced the teachers to be good researchers; the extension staff to be good researchers and the system awards good researchers with the administrative jobs (department heads and deans) as promotions. Any surprise that we have spiraled downward to departments overloaded with narrowly focused researchers who can’t relate to producers?

I’ve done a little soul searching in writing this editorial. I’ve challenged myself with the question, “Am I getting old-fashioned?” I don’t think so, I’m not against cutting-edge research, but I think that there is still an opportunity and need to balance research with teaching and extension. In the past extension filled an unofficial role of public relations. Producers were quick to pick up the flag and support their university. Could the recent trend contribute to university’s problems when state legislatures struggle with funding?

Another issue we need to wrestle with is one of trying to preserve the past versus prepare for the future. In agriculture we’re guilty of this every once in awhile. As the pork and poultry industries consolidated and integrated, the role of the land grant university in providing information to these industries has diminished. It is not a cause and effect issue. Consolidation is driven by the desire to gain business efficiencies and by consumer demand for consistency. Hoping to keep the beef industry from consolidating by preserving the old land grant system is an empty dream.

The solution may be in consolidation of the land grant system itself. Rural public schools and clustered county extension programs provide the model. Does every state need a specialist in every discipline? Does every institution need to fund, equip and update expensive labs to conduct basic research?

From almost every angle that we examine the situation, we in the cattle business are going to increasingly feel the impact of all of this in the coming years. As an example, Cornell University has no intention of replacing the two scientists nearing retirement, who have played a major role in the genetic evaluation system we enjoy in the seedstock business. That will reduce to two, the schools working on national cattle evaluation; a few years ago there were four universities in the so-called Genetic Consortium. Where we get the good information we’ll need to compete in the future is something to think about.

Wayne Vanderwert is Executive Director of the American Gelbvieh Association. More information on the website www.gelbvieh.org

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