Along with West Virginia University president E. Gordon Gee, I co-authored a book entitled Land-Grant Universities for the Future: Higher Education for the Public Good that was released this past November by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Based primarily on interviews conducted with 27 presidents and chancellors of land-grant institutions, this book was meant to provoke discussion about the 21st century mission of land-grant and other public universities in the United States. Serendipitously, those interviews were conducted just before and just after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and our subjects were keen to discuss the runup and its aftermath… So much so, in fact, that we ended up paying a great amount of attention to what we termed the “capital and countryside” divide that was reflected in the results, borrowing from earlier writing on this topic by Michael Barone.

Our examination of polling data from land-grant institutions and their surrounding host communities provided evidence that universities were indeed small “islands of blue” – Democratic leaning campuses that mirrored the voting patterns of state capitals and other major cities in the U.S. – inside of vast “seas of red” – the Republican leaning towns and countryside. Both in the book and elsewhere, we argued that land-grant universities were obligated to transcend this divisiveness in order to serve as the “people’s universities,” a place where individuals from all corners of the political spectrum could come together to discuss the critical issues of the day.

Recently, Heterodox Academy member Christian Alejandro Gonzalez reviewed the Land-Grant Universities for the Future book for National Review. Reacting in part to the discussion of the capital and countryside divide, Gonzalez included the following statement:

Alienating either rural dwellers or urbanites, moreover, imperils the mission of the university. If one constituency feels excluded, its levels of support for universities will decrease, and so will the willingness of its residents to fund colleges with their tax dollars. (Indeed, land-grant universities have struggled financially in recent years because state governments have been more reluctant to provide them with public monies.) Thankfully, Gavazzi and Gee are not the first to notice the dangers caused by the universities’ neglect of rural communities. Heterodox Academy, an organization committed to increasing viewpoint diversity in U.S. colleges, has also been pushing for a greater inclusion of the perspectives of students from rural backgrounds.

 

I was intrigued by this comment and, being a relatively new member of Heterodox Academy myself, I wondered if I might offer a contribution to this dialogue.

The previous conversations on this subject matter that have been hosted by Heterodox Academy start with the basic proposition that politically conservative opinions are underrepresented in academia. As a direct result, the values and attitudes of rural and working-class citizens – who tend to be more conservative in their political orientation – are not well accounted for in university dialogue. Musa al-Gharbi, Director of Communications for Heterodox Academy, extends that exact point as follows in a May 2018 article on ideological diversity in academia:

In short: measures that preclude conservatives from university spaces will tend to marginalize rural and working class people more broadly – because in many important respects, progressives and conservatives are not just the same kinds of people who happen to vote differently (in which case discrimination seems less clear), but are increasingly different types of people.

 

The contribution that I wish to make here is to argue that land-grant universities have a special obligation to lead the way in creating geographical representation within their walls. In Land-Grant Universities for the Future, we pay close attention to some of the insidious ways that well-intentioned efforts have contributed to the decline in the numbers of rural and working-class students. Most glaring in this regard is the pursuit of higher rankings in U.S. News and World Report and other lists. The formula for getting to the top of these rankings is fairly limited in scope, and one of the most important factors is the average ACT and SAT scores of your incoming freshman class. One might argue it is all well and good to conduct selective admissions based on such merit. Yet these standardized scores just as often highlight large discrepancies that are a function of racesocioeconomic status, and geography.

In other words, university rankings are not particularly meaningful for most families, especially if a college degree is not both affordable for and accessible to qualified students in well-ranked schools. Yet many land-grant universities seem to be pursuing elevated rankings at the expense of their original mission.

The Morrill Act of 1862, the original congressional action taken to create America’s first public universities, specifically stated that these institutions were created “in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” I italicized “the industrial classes” to highlight the fact that land-grant universities are supposed to be educating our nation’s working classes and those other individuals who need access to the American Dream that higher education offers.

Who are these land-grant universities? They include such prominent names as Cornell, Maryland, Michigan State, MIT, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers, Texas A&M, West Virginia University, Wisconsin, and the University of California—in other words, four dozen of the largest and best public universities in America. Yet despite the land-grant mandate, their selective admissions processes often exclude those who would benefit the most from the education they provide, including students from more rural locations.

There are some signs, however nascent, that the admissions officers of these universities may be getting the message that rural students are an underserved population in need of greater attention. Selectively admitting students from more rural geographic areas is exactly the sort of activity one would hope to see in any larger effort to create ideological diversity within these land-grant and other public universities. It also appears to be the case that dropping the requirement for standardized scores can in fact increase diversity, something that some universities have initiated. Perhaps others should follow suit, and monitor the impact on the enrollment of students from rural America.

It also should be said that many of those land-grant institutions created through later congressional actions, including many of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and tribal colleges, have been doing an admirable job of serving exactly those populations of students intended by the original Morrill Act of 1862, including those students coming from the more rural locations of our country. The danger in giving these sorts of kudos, however, is that it raises the possibility of someone remarking “that’s their mission, not ours.” All our land-grant universities must be implored to return to their roots in order to increase the ideological diversity of our higher education institutions. These are Mr. Lincoln’s universities, after all, started amidst the American Civil War. They should be of the people, for the people, and by the people. All the people. Not just those from urban and suburban America.