Higher Education’s Future in Focus at Penn State Conference

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Nearly 150 years after an act of Congress led to the establishment of the first land-grant universities, many of the public institutions face fiscal challenges amid tightening state budgets across the country.

The questions are similar to those facing companies or organizations in other fields as the economy struggles to rebound from the recession, the most pressing issue being how to do more with less.

The future of public higher education will be a prominent topic this week during a conference at Penn State intended in part to get a head start on the milestone anniversary of the establishment of land-grant institutions.

The president of the Washington-based Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, M. Peter McPherson, is among those who plan to attend the event, which begins Wednesday night.

“In a world of many changes and less resources, the touchstone has to be the quality of an education,” McPherson said in a recent phone interview. “The challenge is how we do that, and that will involve some change by us as well as some significant resources from the state and federal government.”

Congress passed the Morrill Land-Grant Act in 1862 to encourage colleges to add engineering, mining, agriculture and other applied sciences to courses that were rooted in arts and letters, according to historical information from Penn State. It was thought that the subjects would be useful for a country entering a period of economic and industrial growth.

Each state was given an allotment of federal land, about 30,000 acres for each senator and representative in Congress. The states were to sell the land to use the proceeds to create endowments, which in turn would provide support for colleges that introduced the new curricula.

“The colleges also had to pledge that the cost of this new higher education would remain within reach of Americans of average financial means,” according to Penn State, which was founded in 1855 and was designated Pennsylvania’s sole land-grant institution in 1863, becoming become one of the first schools in the country to receive the designation.

Hiram Fitzgerald, associate provost for university outreach and engagement at Michigan State, said the land-grant act initially created a public educational system that didn’t exist in the United States at a time when small and predominantly religiously affiliated college were the primary centers of learning. Penn State calls the Land-Grant Act the anchor to its three-part public mission of teaching, research and public service.

Like other land-grant schools, Penn State also faces budget cuts and layoffs after Republican Gov. Tom Corbett proposed this year to slash state funding for the 14 state-owned schools and four state-related schools by 50 percent.

The university’s loss amounts to about $182 million of its $4 billion budget. The school has said that does not present a true picture of the impact on its educational mission because much of the income is earmarked toward other areas. For instance, federal funding awarded for research can’t be moved to the education ledger.

Penn State has frozen salaries and placed a hold on new construction projects, while layoffs are expected. Last week, regents at Oklahoma State approved a 4.85 percent tuition increase, following recent cuts in state funding for the university by 4.8 percent, or about $12 million.

Penn State’s vice president for outreach, Craig Weidemann, said that, because of reductions in state allocations, it’s “more important than ever”’ for universities to recognize their commitments as land-grant institutions.

“To make sure our lenses are very focused,” he said, “and focused on what’s the most pressing challenges for the communities.”

Fitzgerald, who plans to present at the Penn State conference, said land-grant schools began to shift more attention to research after World War II, when the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health were created and began pouring more money into universities focusing on the sciences and math.

Amid the fiscal uncertainty, Fitzgerald suggested that land-grant schools begin reconnecting more with communities “maybe like they did 150 years ago.”

“To engage the communities where they might be, whenever that might be,” he said. “We have to engage them in a way to co-create these solutions.”