Harvard Educational Review
  1. Land-Grant Universities for the Future

    Higher Education for the Public Good

    Stephen M. Gavazzi and E. Gordon Gee

    Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. 216 pp. $34.95 (cloth).

    At a time when the value of a degree in higher education is being challenged and the role that universities play in promoting an equitable society is being questioned, Stephen M. Gavazzi and E. Gordon Gee make an argument about the “covenant” that exists between public and land-grant universities and the ways it can shed light on how land-grant universities can strengthen themselves and better serve their communities. While the authors cite a number of sources that provide historical accounts of land-grant universities, from their legislative founding to how these institutions have evolved (e.g., Sorber & Geiger, 2014), Gavazzi and Gee spend less time defining the covenant from a historical or legislative perspective and instead borrow from Robert Greenleaf’s (2002) concept of servant leadership to clarify how “a bilateral bond that exists between land-grant institutions and the communities they were designed to serve” (p. 36) can be used by land-grant institutions to focus their academic efforts to benefit their respective communities.

    Gavazzi, professor of human development and family science, and Gee, president of West Virginia University, construct a vision for the role of landgrant universities built around strong “campus-community” relationships. This vision is supported in part by compelling personal narratives and by an analysis of their interviews with twenty-seven presidents and chancellors from the nation’s land-grant universities, which were established in 1862 with the first of two Morrill Acts. The authors provide a synthesis of the interviews, with illustrative quotes, to substantiate the main themes that form the basis of their recommendations for administrators, faculty, and students for fostering the commitment land-grant institutions have to a range of constituents in the communities they serve. Among many actionable recommendations for both administrators and faculty that emerge from the analysis of the interview data, the most noteworthy is the inclusion of a full syllabus for those interested in offering a course that centers land-grant universities in the US higher education system.

    First, Gavazzi and Gee motivate their argument about land-grant universities and the public good through their own land-grant narratives. Their compelling personal accounts are a platform to “extoll the virtues of land-grant institutions while simultaneously examining their warts” (p. 1). Gavazzi writes of his father, John Gavazzi, a veteran and the first in his family to earn a college degree as a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University. Stephen followed in his father’s footsteps and also attended Penn State, set on becoming a psychologist. The psychology faculty promoted community involvement as a part of students’ education, and Gavazzi worked in a suicide prevention clinic. The service orientation impressed on him as an undergraduate influenced his pursuit of graduate degrees and research on community-based mental health. The influence of service on Gavazzi’s educational journey is evident later in the book when the authors introduce the concept of the “servant university,” a phrase they use “to describe and celebrate the distinctiveness of Mr. Lincoln’s institutions of higher learning and how they prioritize their activities based on the needs of the communities they were designated to serve” (p. 32). Gee writes evocatively about the impact of land-grant institutions in shaping his thinking about service-oriented education, about his rural background, and about his time at the University of Utah, which he contrasts with his graduate experience at Columbia University. While grateful for the opportunities at Columbia, Gee felt a disconnect between “his land-grant roots and his understanding of community building” (p. 7).

    Gavazzi and Gee were also informed by their extensive professional experience in land-grant universities, which is what perhaps leads them to vigorously advocate for stronger leadership as a tool to combat the public’s perception of the decreasing value of a college degree. To substantiate the claim of the increasing negative views on the value of colleges, the authors cite data from the Pew Research Center (2017) poll suggesting that respondents who politically align themselves with the Republican Party and respondents from rural America tend to think of a college education as less valuable, as compared with respondents who label themselves as Democrats and respondents from more urban areas. Concern over the public’s perception of the decreasing value of a college degree was also voiced by several of the administrators interviewed for the book. Taken together, the Pew Research Center statistics about the political divide in the perception of the value of a college degree and the concern over this perception by land-grant college administrators are causes for pause. Gavazzi and Gee contend that “critical decisions made at all levels of leadership should be filtered first through the lens of what provides maximum benefit for the citizens of each state and for American society at large” (p. 34); land-grant university leaders need to keep in mind their specific community’s needs, while resisting university homogenization, to counter the negative perception of the value of a college degree.

    Gavazzi and Gee identify perceived strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in the analysis of their interviews with land-grant university leaders to gather information about how well these universities meet the needs of their communities. The main themes that emerged during their research had to do with the challenges that arise from a series of tensions with competing objectives in the academy. Many of the challenges discussed will be familiar to university administrators and faculty and include, but are not limited to, the competing incentives in research versus teaching and service, the role of research in applied knowledge versus basic research, and the needs of rural communities versus more urban communities. Gavazzi and Gee discuss, for example, how universities’ vested interest in receiving higher rankings can affect admissions policies and practices that decrease access to the institution, and decreased access is at odds with a servant orientation. Similarly, while there may be incentives for land-grant universities to support global versus local research, an emphasis on global research may not help foster relationships or objectives that serve the local communities. While the challenges highlighted by several of the land-grant administrators interviewed are broad, readers may find value in how these leaders are portrayed and how they grapple with the challenges while staying anchored to their communities.

    Gavazzi and Gee are perhaps at their best when discussing the critical role of faculty. Their own educational backgrounds and professional experience in higher education enable them to effectively describe the “dynamic tension” experienced by university faculty when executing the tripartite mission of teaching, research, and service. Appropriately, they give promotion and tenure significant attention when considering the role of faculty in fostering a servant orientation. Most compellingly, the connection they make between tenure-track status and the balance between teaching, research, and service in the context of land-grant universities illuminates the challenges that arise with a higher education reward system that places these priorities at odds with one another. They also contrast faculty who want to be in land-grant institutions with those who take a position because it is available, which, they maintain, generates faculty who are not as receptive to the idea of community engagement. While they do not cover it in detail, the authors discuss more broadly the competitive and limited nature of finding an academic position and acknowledge that, when faced with the limited job prospects in higher education, an academic may chose a position at an institution where they are less inclined to be involved in the community.

    Gavazzi and Gee also explore the perception of university leadership on the role of students in fostering a servant orientation in land-grant universities. In exploring the perception of presidents and chancellors on the competing goals of providing a liberal arts education or vocational training, they begin to incorporate the student experience into their book. While the focus of the book is on the perceptions of university leadership, it would have been valuable to have student perspectives about why they chose a land-grant university and how they perceive the role of such institutions in their own education and in the community. This student perspective could have provided further guidance in how to best embody the values of a servant university based on student expectations and the desire for a liberal arts education versus vocational training.

    Although direct student voices are missing, readers will appreciate the importance given to the role of students in a manner that is consistent with the core arguments in the book. As evidence of this, Gavazzi and Gee provide a full syllabus with a course description and course objectives that can help students learn about land-grant universities in the twenty-first century while connecting these institutions of higher education to student experiences centered around free speech, student diversity, and student debt, among other topics. One notable example of how assignments align to contemporary issues is an assignment that prompts students to select three online stories and connect them to themes relevant to land-grant institutions. For example, students could cite an article about the recent violence in Charlottesville and then explore issues of free speech, student diversity, and student safety and the role of their university in guiding students through safe, educational, and inclusive engagement in the community.

    As the title suggests, in Land-Grant Universities for the Future, authors Gavazzi and Gee explore the role of the modern land-grant university and the perception of land-grant university leaders around the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of these institutions and also offer a vision for how these universities can better serve their communities based on the covenant established in 1862. Readers will appreciate the inclusion of several relevant constituents, such as faculty and students, and will gain a better understanding of the workings of complex land-grant universities that can provide practical insights about how to approach challenges in higher education.

    Isaura J. Gallegos

    Greenleaf, R. K. (2002). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

    Pew Research Center. (2017). Sharp partisan divisions in views of national institutions. Retrieved from http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/07/11101505/07-10-17-Institutions-release.pdf

    Sorber, N. M., & Geiger, R. L. (2014). The welding of opposite views: Land-grant historiography at 150 years. M. B. Paulson (Ed.) In M. B. Paulson (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (pp. 385–422). Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Springer.
  2. Share


    “Los Músicos”
    Mexican Corridos, the Aural Border, and the Evocative Musical Renderings of Transnational Youth

    Book Notes

    Land-Grant Universities for the Future
    Stephen M. Gavazzi and E. Gordon Gee

    Classroom Cultures
    Michelle G. Knight-Manuel and Joanne E. Marciano

    Ghosts in the Schoolyard
    Eve L. Ewing

    Data and Teaching
    Joseph P. McDonald, Nora M. Isacoff, and Dana Karin