‘Land grant university’ has history (Editorial)

(May 17, 2016) “Land grant university system.”
It’s a phrase that is often heard in discussions at public universities and their satellite research and Extension facilities.
What is the land grant university system?
The land-grant university system was created by the federal Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, establishing a network of colleges and universities dedicated to providing educational opportunity for all through innovative scientific research and community-minded programs.
The Morrill Acts provided grants in the form of federal lands to each state for the establishment of an institution “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.”
The Hatch Act of 1887 authorized direct payment of federal grant funds to each state to establish an agricultural experiment station in connection with the land grant institution there.
Finally, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 created the Cooperative Extension Service associated with each U.S. land-grant institution.
The Extension service is a combined federal, state, and local effort to communicate research discoveries to farmers and other citizens of the state to improve their rural quality of life.
In Maryland, that service is embodied in the University of Maryland Extension, which is housed in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
UME is somewhat unique in that it is shared by both of Maryland’s land-grant campuses in College Park and at University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne.
Federal, state and county governments all contribute to the land grant budget and in recent years, the research and Extension land grant performance has been challenged by funding cuts.
Serving the land grant mission is a partnership that, to work best, needs all the stakeholders engaged.
Extension programs in Maryland have had to adapt to rising costs that are not matched by equivalent budget increases.
The result has been a need to meet the needs of the state with a smaller workforce.
New communication technologies have compensated for some of the budget reductions, especially when enabling regionalization of specialist expertise and responsibilities.
Still, the concept of “more with less” has been difficult to transform into reality, even with a highly dedicated team.
Dr. Angus Murphy, chairman of the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, acknowledges the challenges of current funding. “Things have been tough,” he said. “The budget cuts have been tough on everyone. But we have tried to deliver on what folks need ... we are trying to do the best we can within that context.”
As the university and college came to terms with the recession-induced budget issues, like nearly every institution nationwide, efforts to further the land grant mission under then-AGNR dean Cheng-i Wei, were taking shape.
The “Ag Forward” program in the college’s Institute of Applied Agriculture, in place for three years, has steadily increased enrollment in the university’s Institute of Applied Agriculture, offering another path for students to get a four-year degree in agriculture.
Last year, with data from 2015 and earlier, AGNR was ranked by College Values Online fifth out of 30 agricultural schools nationwide for graduates’ return on investment.
The list looked at the colleges’ average 20-year net return on investment, then rated the schools based on tuition, percent of students receiving financial aid, and most important, the number of agricultural programs available at the school.
Amid repeated hiring freezes, vacant positions were filled in areas of horticulture and food safety and, notably for grain farmers, those filling roles from retired soybean specialist Dr. Bill Kenworthy and retired Extension weed control specialist, Dr. Ron Ritter.
The university signaled its determination to continue the land grant mission with the hiring of land grant devotees Dr. Craig Beyrouty, formerly ag college dean at Colorado State University, as the new dean and director of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and director of University of Maryland Extension and more recently the appointment of Dr. Thomas Porter, former chairman of the college’s Department of Animal and Avian Sciences, as interim associate Extension director.
Both educators have let it be known that they intend to work, as the budget allows, within the framework of the land grant mandate.
Extension staffers out in the field are noting an “excitement” for where things are heading.
While there are still needs to be met and funding obstacles to overcome, we agree.
The mission continues and that’s exciting for Maryland agriculture.