Land-grant universities: anchors of nation's success

When I became president of the University of Kentucky nearly a decade ago, a reporter asked: "Today is your first day as president of this university. What do you hope to be able to say on your last day?"

I said, "If it could be said that the University of Kentucky did more to benefit the people of this commonwealth than any other land-grant university in the nation, I could live with that."

At the end of my tenure as UK's 11th president, I believe more strongly than ever in the indispensable nature of America's land-grant universities, born of a vision of service and economic growth nearly 150 years ago.

America is very different now. The needs of an agrarian-dominated economy were replaced by the Industrial Age and replaced again by a technological revolution, the impact of which has yet to be fully felt.

And the world America faces is changed as well. Gone is the autonomy and unquestioned dominance of the American economy. In its place is an interdependent world.

We live in a turbulent time, facing economic competition from without and economic fragility from within. It is important to remind ourselves of the promise of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, which found genesis in the conviction that the steady and sturdy anchor to success in a changing world is the American land-grant university.

It is a vision of sustained economic prosperity built on the understanding that America's strength lies in the collective capacity for prosperity generated by the progress of every individual. We seek a public good generated by investment in education, infrastructure and innovation, coupled with the exceptionally American ideal that all children can succeed, if given the tools to do so.

Land-grant institutions — inextricably linked to the states we serve — are essential to securing this public good. Our institutions, located on the gold coasts and across all of middle America, must become even more aggressive leaders in defining America's education and research agenda in the 21st century. We must maintain fidelity to the founding principles of education, research and service that are our hallmarks even as we respond to new challenges brought by the technological age and global competition.

How do we do it? We must "make research real," using the statewide infrastructure of land-grant institutions to do work that affects everyday lives across our states. For example, at UK we created "Commonwealth Collaboratives," which provides $10,000 of seed funding to senior researchers to develop partnerships with P-12 educators, health care providers, entrepreneurs, industries, government officials and private citizens. Forty-seven projects have been selected to tackle obesity, drug abuse, cardiovascular disease, cancer, family violence, environmental challenges and more.

And we're utilizing our tradition of statewide outreach to build creative networks. Our agricultural extension offices — located in each of Kentucky's 120 counties — continue to do critical work with farmers throughout the state, but have expanded into areas ranging from health care to the fine arts to rural journalism and communications.

Our College of Agriculture also developed the Kentucky Entrepreneurial Coaches Network, which helps farmers who have lost tobacco income to diversify into other businesses. But the network is available to anyone starting any type of business. Our academic medical center is sending doctors to rural communities. This outreach helps local hospitals provide more and better care to their residents, unless medical needs are complex enough to warrant coming to campus.

It is not simply enough to do good things. We have to explain what we are doing — and how we are doing it — in ways that resonate with policymakers, taxpayers, tuition payers and donors. A lot of our challenge is reminding everyone of our founding roots and continuing value. Let's talk about why our graduates are better workers and citizens because they spent time with us. Let's talk about how communities are better places to live and work and raise families because we're involved in them. Let's talk about the difference we make in the lives of people who never set foot on our campuses.

We must bring to these conversations a willingness to talk about our strengths and admit our weaknesses. In Kentucky, we are having the right conversation. In 2005, we created a Top 20 Business Plan to provide the financial and capital framework for achieving Top 20 status — a mandate issued by the state legislature in 1997.

We have been willing to attach measures of accountability to the resources we seek. Our experience is that plain-spoken language about our needs, successes and challenges resonates with the people we need and who need us. Financial support in troubled times is a function of providing evidence of enduring worth to those we serve. And we have to do our part to keep costs in check by operating efficiently.

During my tenure, we've redirected or created savings of more than $110 million by cutting administrative costs, using technology to make smarter business processes and a host of other efficiency measures.

Finally, we must be sensitive to the cost borne by our students and their families. In an age where advanced education is more important than ever, we must be more accessible than ever — whether state dollars increase or not. Universities are a public good because people come to us and leverage that experience to a brighter future. And we all benefit because we know that people who go to college live healthier lives, less encumbered by disease; they are more likely to vote and work to improve their communities; they are more likely to be involved in local schools and read to their children at night.

We must ensure our doors remain open to every student, based on determination and intellectual ability and irrespective of ability to pay. America's best hope for economic success in a knowledge economy lies in our land-grant universities, with our unparalleled connections to communities throughout the nation and a historic mission to serve.

We are, indeed, indispensable.