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Auburn University President Steven Leath: The Land-Grant University: Making a 19th Century Concept More Relevant Than Ever

By Dr. Steven Leath

Throughout my career in higher education, I’ve been fortunate to hold positions at some of our nation’s most respected land-grant institutions. I’ve had positions including that of a teacher, a researcher, and university administrator, among others. Today our nation faces social and economic challenges, but what my experience has taught me, and what guides my mission today at Auburn, is that the role of a leading land-grant university is as relevant to our society as ever.

Historical Context

The public land-grant university “experiment” began in the U.S. in 1862 when The Morrill Act was signed into law. The intent of the Act was to provide funding (via federal “land grants”) for the establishment of institutions in each state to educate people in areas of study that were considered practical to professions – areas such as agriculture and mechanical arts.

In the 19th century, private universities dominated higher education, and driving this legislation was the belief that this country’s social and economical development would be enhanced by higher education being available to all Americans.

Through the years, the land-grant university movement has been enhanced by more than a dozen federal acts, established more than 100 higher learning institutions, and expanded to include an array of disciplines and fields of research in addition to those contained in its original charter.

This approach has had a profound effect on the American university system by making higher education both accessible and practical. Surging enrollment translated into a more educated society, which economists tell us is related to economic stability and growth [1]. Indeed the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicates that data support the notion of knowledgeable people being more active in our democratic processes, specifically more likely to engage in, “voting, volunteering, political interest, and interpersonal trust” [2]. And, behavioral scientists present evidence that academic achievement is associated with living longer lives [3]. These key performance indicators demonstrate that our society and economy benefit greatly from the land-grant university system.

A 21st Century Construct

Nationally, higher education today faces several challenges, but none more daunting than budget cuts and the substantial reduction of investment in our universities [4], which is making higher education less attainable and aggregate national enrollment numbers have plummeted [5]. Exacerbating this is the realization that the 21st century economy requires new skills sets that only a 21st century education can provide [6].

And so it follows that the core attributes of the public land-grant university, the “peoples college,” are again poised to overcome the challenges of our day. To do this, however, we must place our focus and energies toward what I refer to as the three overarching responsibilities of a public land-grant university. These are:

  • Inspiring, educating and preparing students for life;
  • Conducting groundbreaking scholarship and research; and
  • Engaging students, faculty and partners to apply that expertise and innovation to serve the greater good.

Educate and Inspire

The primary responsibility of a public land-grant university is to educate and prepare students for life – to equip them with the intellectual, professional and social skills they’ll need to attain fulfilling and productive lives.

At Auburn, we endeavor to expand their minds, broaden their experiences and hone their capabilities by imparting both theoretical knowledge and practical skills. In short, our goal is to educate, empower and inspire our students to be the very best they can be as we help launch them into adulthood.

All universities endeavor to do that, of course, but the special role of a public land-grant university also carries a higher calling. A big part of our public charter at Auburn – and a key component of our Auburn Creed – is to ensure that our students are also instilled with the strong work ethic, sound character traits and high values they need to become responsible, respectful members of society. We engage our students early on to make valuable contributions to the world they live in, and to lead their fellow citizens in creating meaningful change that impacts that world in a big way – particularly with respect to those most in need.

This deeply held responsibility to build moral character and drive active social responsibility distinguishes the student experience of land-grant universities such as Auburn from that found at other institutions of higher learning, either public or private.

Discover and Innovate

The second responsibility of a land-grant university is to drive the development of academic scholarship and fundamental scientific research that creates and advances knowledge in the purest sense.

At Auburn, we support, build upon and leverage the scholarship and research expertise of our faculty, students and partners to discover, to innovate, to create new science, new technologies, new applications and methodologies that can directly and impactfully improve lives.

Scholarship and research are at the core of our land-grant mission, with innovation being the driving force.

Engage and Transform

The third fundamental element of a land-grant university – engagement and transformation – leverages the value of the first two elements to improve the lives of those most in need.

At Auburn, we believe that it’s our duty as a public land-grant university to engage our students, our graduates, our faculty and our partners to transform the fruits of our scholarship and research initiatives into high-value new products, methods and services that meet our constituent communities’ most pressing needs and solve their most daunting challenges.

Delivering real-world, practical solutions that bring meaningful change to lives at risk is what sets us apart and, ultimately, makes our charter mission critical to 21st century America.

Most land-grant universities succeed in fulfilling one or two of these responsibilities, but the very best land-grant universities are driven by a relentless focus on all three. They recognize and embrace the unique value generated by tapping into the interplay and synergy between education, research and outreach. They invest in human capital to ensure that tomorrow’s workforce has the knowledge and skills they need to spur economic growth and personal achievement.

That’s the sweet spot the top tier land-grant universities aspire to attain – and that’s what we strive to do in the years ahead at Auburn. The 21st century economy requires a 21st century education, and that’s what we must deliver.

Dr. Steven Leath became Auburn University’s 19th president in June 2017. A proven leader with expertise in teaching, extension, research, and economic development, Dr. Leath’s installation as Auburn University president occurs on March 29, 2018. To learn more about Dr. Leath and his upcoming installation event, log on to auburn.edu/auburninspires.

[1] Why education matters for economic development. Education For A Global Development. The World Bank. May 17, 2016.

[2] Education Indicators In Focus. OECD. 2013/01 (January).

[3] Mortality Attributable to Low Levels of Education in the United States. Patrick M. Krueger, Melanie K. Tran, Robert A. Hummer, Virginia W. Chang. July 8, 2015.

[4] Bottom Line: How State Budget Cuts Affect Your Education. Sarah Brown. New York Times. November 3, 2016.

[5] Seven Challenges Facing Higher Education. Richard Vedder. Forbes. August 29, 2017.

[6] 21st Century Education For A 21st Century Economy. Nicholas Wyman. Forbes. November 22, 2016.

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