Our Work

Institutional Transformation for Public Research Universities to Meet the Challenges

Public research universities have long been powerful, problem solving institutions. Particularly in the field of agriculture, land-grant universities have solved problems in the production sector by making improvements in areas like agronomy, plant disease, and soil management. Many of the problems of the past fit comfortably within the disciplinary boundaries that define university departments, like addressing significant plant diseases or producing new varieties of plants with higher yields. Public research universities, with their disciplinary strengths, continue to make notable accomplishments that improve productivity, yields, and increase food supply.

Yet today, the challenges of ensuring food and nutrition security, as this and other reports detail, are more complex. Greater investments are needed to produce more food and fiber, but such production must also be done with greater efficiency, less impact on the environment, methods that support long-term productive capacity, and with underlying policy support. Such challenges demand approaches that engage a wide range of biophysical and social science actors who can productively interact to create solutions.

Today’s Public Research University Environment

Much like the food system, the university discovery, engagement, and learning system is a complex, interagency, multidimensional process influenced by history, established processes, and longstanding institutions. As with most institutions, universities are highly responsive to their resource base. Funding and constituencies determine a great deal of their structure and their behavior. With regard to the university resource base, several notable trends have developed in recent decades.

  • First, while funding is not the only issue, it a critical one in today’s environment. Fiscal support from states has declined dramatically to a level that is on average below 25 percent of the state universities’ budgets. This funding situation has influenced public research universities to implement an array of fiscal strategies. Most relevant to this report has been a greater reliance on federal research funding. Much, but not all, of that funding, like that from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is more appropriate for basic science that does not connect easily to local community interests. Similarly, funding from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is fragmented and focused on specific areas, although USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), has begun efforts to address food system level issues.
  • Second, obtaining large external grants, mainly through federal and private sector funding, has become an important measure of faculty success and a basis for promotion. Furthermore, many of the funding streams from the federal government are influenced considerably by well-meaning interest groups, and may be narrowly defined, short-term in focus, and strongly defended
  • Third, the student and the local community populations have become more diverse, both ethnically and demographically. As the student and community populations diversify, and their food system issues become more local, education and engagement efforts need to become more connected to their needs. As noted earlier, diversifying the student body brings new stakeholder voices into the conversation around how to address food insecurity. Overall, universities benefit from the new viewpoints and novel answers to old community questions that a diversified campus brings.

Recommendations for Institutional Transformation of Public Research Universities

The members of the Commission and working groups, in consultation with experts in matters related to institutional transformation, identified four areas where universities can address institutional barriers to meeting the Grand Challenge to sustainably feed an expanding population and improve prospects of food and nutrition security for all.

Public research universities are uniquely positioned to provide leadership and to assist in implementing solutions to the grand challenge of sustainably feeding an expanding population and improving prospects for food and nutrition security for all. Contributing to the “public good” is a core value of public research universities. They have a full range of relevant expertise and a long track record of success in discovery, engagement, and learning efforts related to domestic and global food and nutrition security issues.

While this Commission recognizes there are many public research university examples of successful work on food and nutrition security, our institutions need to do much more. The Commission recommends more universities become deeply engaged and make appropriate changes to reduce barriers. Such changes, often needed to encourage transdisciplinary science,may involve changes in organizational structure, resource allocation, and incentive criteria for faculty promotion and tenure. It is clear transdisciplinary science, also referred to as convergent science, is critical in solving these challenges. This conclusion is in line with those from the National Academies report, Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering and Beyond,which encourages universities to develop policies, practices, and guidelines to support and evaluate convergent and disciplinary research. Note that a number of other recent commissions from NAS, NIH, and NSF have issued reports recognizing transdisciplinary science as a promising means to solving complex problems.

The Commission and its Working Groups all emphasized the need to engage communities and governments, the public and private sectors, and others in the identifying both problems and possible solutions. Meaningful engagement with community partners requires time and significant effort to build necessary trust.This type of commitment is common among extension staff, but is often not incentivized for young faculty. Strengthening the engagement component of the university produces valuable outcomes for communities domestically and globally, increases the relevance of research, and builds greater public support for the university.

Universities must place an emphasis on producing graduates who understand food system concepts, have a good understanding of how their specialty or discipline relates to other components of the system and have the skills to work across disciplines in a team. Achieving this will require hiring faculty with interdisciplinary experience, assessing existing transdisciplinary efforts across campuses for best practices, developing a knowledge base for wide use, and creating a curriculum with interdisciplinary components.

Featured Project & Initiative

The Data Literacy Institute – a partnership between APLU and the Association for Institutional Research with funding from Ascendium – brings together cross-departmental teams from 11 Powered by Publics institutions from Cluster 14 to engage in training that enhance their use of data to improve equitable student outcomes. In May 2022, Powered by Publics held […]

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