World-Class Greatness at a Land-Grant University Near You?

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

September 26, 2010

"EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes."

—the Dodo (Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland)

As I write, the leaves are turning color, and the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers are actually ahead in the early stages of the first half against Southern Cal in Twin City Federal Stadium, also known as the House That Bob Built (for Bob Bruininks, the U of M's president). There's been a lot of talk in Minneapolis this week that our recent lousy performance in Bob's House has been because we aren't spending enough money on football—even though our new stadium, just a year old, has close to the largest locker room in the universe. Complaints started after we lost last week to those high-spending South Dakota State Jackrabbits. I wonder how we'd do if we swapped athletics budgets with them.

The size of an athletics budget is related to how well the football team performs over the long term—or, in the case of a program like ours, how much of a subsidy the university can provide. And, of course, there is the issue of using one's resources to best advantage. In some respects, it's like maximizing resources in academics. The president of a university ends up responsible for both.

Academic competition this fall—the annual greatness rankings of American and world universities—is also upon us. As if that weren't enough excitement, the National Research Council rankings, which are supposed to be released every 10 years but have been delayed for some time now, will soon be made public. The NRC's data are so old as to make its ratings virtually useless (the council began collecting this information in 2006), but maybe that's the idea. I cynically believe that the long delay in release may have been due to great unhappiness of interested parties about the results. But administrators of public and private universities apparently believe they need those rankings to validate their claims to world-class greatness.

Where does the University of Minnesota stand in the greatness rankings? I write about Minnesota because I know the institution as an alumnus, faculty member, and strong supporter. But the points I'm about to make pertain to most land-grant universities in the United States.

The phrase "land-grant institution" is often used but still bears some explanation. Institutions of higher education designated by states as beneficiaries of the federal Morrill Acts have been granted federal land for the purpose of development or sale to finance their activities. Per the language of Morrill, the mission of land-grant institutions is to concentrate on the teaching of agriculture, science, and engineering.

There are approximately 70 such institutions in the United States. Among them are some of our finest universities: the Universities of California, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Arizona, along with Purdue, Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan State Universities.

The exact mission of land-grant institutions is open to discussion, but there seems to be a consensus that they have a special obligation to provide high-quality education for citizens of their home state, as well as to focus attention on the economic development and social welfare of that state. An inscription on Northrop Auditorium, a central building on the Twin Cities campus, summarizes one such land-grant mission:

The University of Minnesota
Founded in the faith that men are ennobled by understanding
Dedicated to the advancement of learning and the search for truth
Devoted to the instruction of youth and the welfare of the state

So how does the maintenance of high academic ranking as a research institution fit into the land-grant mission? Simply put, it doesn't.

Rankings are the result of selected factors, weighted in a somewhat arbitrary fashion, that give sortable scores for institutions. Depending on the factors and their weighting, the results demonstrate wide variability.

The value of rankings is in the raw data they provide rather than the final score they reach. Students and their parents can make sensible choices based on such things as graduation rate, average debt at graduation, and other factors important to them. But what can we say about diverse methods that variously rank Minnesota as 28th, 96th, and 52nd in the world, but 64th in the United States (as the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy, QS TopUniversities, Times Higher Education, and U.S. News, respectively, have rated us)?

Attempting to game the rankings is a losing proposition for land-grant institutions because some of the factors that affect rankings are in direct opposition to the land-grant mission. Because high SAT scores and high-school rank often influence university rankings, many institutions try to recruit students from out of state to raise those numbers. What of the citizens of the state who are squeezed by such tactics?

Agricultural and applied research that are part of the land-grant mandate, on the other hand, have traditionally been undervalued in academic-ranking schemes. That has led to a "We are not a trade school" mentality among many land-grant administrators, which in turn has led to a neglect of the kind of work intrinsic to the mission. Not to mention the fact that applied research can be of enormous importance (witness the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Minnesota alumnus Norman Borlaug for his work developing high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat that has helped developing nations attain greater agricultural self-sufficiency).

It's wrong that many land-grant institutions have been sucked into the competitive university-ranking business and have strayed from their mission. In 2004 the University of Minnesota's president boasted in an embarrassingly titled document ("Serving Minnesota Through World-Class Greatness") that under the provost's leadership, "the University community articulated an ambitious aspiration for the University to be one of the top three public research universities in the world within a decade."

That would be 2014. As Hook said to Smee, "Do I hear a clock ticking?"

There's something both hubristic and clueless about statements like those from my university. Does the administration believe that the public cannot see through the unreality of its intention to be one of the top three public universities in the world in four more years?

Land-grant universities should get back to the business of doing what they do best­—in particular, teaching at a level sufficient to prepare people in their states to be competitive in the job market—and worry less about becoming world-class public research institutions. A recent Wall Street Journal survey of recruiters found that large public universities (although not Minnesota) dominate the top 25 favorites of recruiters for big companies. That is the sort of ranking about which universities like mine should care.

It is possible for a student to get a better education at the University of Minnesota than at St. Catherine or Northwestern Universities, or Carleton or St. Olaf Colleges, to mention a few of the institutions where I have been on either the receiving or the giving end of teaching. Minnesota excels in the depth and breadth of courses available to students. It simply is not possible, even for the Carletons of the world, to compete with that.

Many of the students who have worked in my lab have been accepted for graduate work at universities like California at Berkeley, San Diego, and San Francisco; Caltech; Stanford; Harvard; and Cambridge. If you go to a large public university and do well, you can write your own ticket. I have had many undergrads in my lab or courses who are the equal of students anywhere.

The University of Minnesota is, in other words, a tremendous resource for the state of Minnesota. Public education should be the great equalizer, and Minnesota and other land-grant institutions should return to their original land-grant priorities.

Re-establishing those priorities will also help in making a stronger case to the Legislature for increased support. Gordon Gee, at Ohio State, is a master of that lesson, and he and his university have prospered because of the good relationship he has developed with the Ohio legislature and the people of Ohio. Other land-grant-university presidents and administrations could learn a great deal from Gee.

Final score? Southern Cal 32, Minnesota 21. Prospects for winning even two more games this year seem dim. We'll probably even get beaten by my other alma mater, Northwestern.

But we will also be getting a new president soon. Perhaps he or she will help us return to our land-grant priorities. And maybe we'll even get a great football team to put up a fight against Ohio State.  

Bill Gleason is an associate professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.