Communiversity: Beyond the Land Grant

Dr. John M. Gerber, Professor of Sustainable Food and Farming

University of Massachusetts, Amherst MA 01003

Originally written in 1997 and revised in 2011

This essay briefly reviews this evolution of the land grant university and predicts that the next phase in the development of the public university will be a community-focused learning network that extends access to all citizens through university outreach and online instruction in the communiversity of the 21st century (1).  The "land grant ideal" of making useful knowledge available to all Americans through affordable education, extension to the community, and interrelated practical research, has been tarnished by a limited view of scholarship that values research over the other two public university functions.  Increasing criticism and declining financial support for public universities has produced a crisis-opportunity that should result in a radical transformation of the institution.  I believe those public universities that are able to build on the land grant ideal, re-engage with the larger community, and take advantage of communications and societal networking technologies will thrive in the 21st century.  In fact, continuous change has been our history.

A Brief Look Back

Americans have long valued public education. Early settlers built schools as cornerstones of their new communities, and leading farmers of the 18th and 19th centuries were known for their interest in public speeches and pamphlets (the blogs of that era) introducing and debating new ideas.  Although the value of education has been recognized since the tablet writers of Mesopotamia almost 5000 years ago (2), public education is truly an American ideal.

Jonathan Baldwin Turner, professor at Illinois College, graduate of Yale College, and native of Templeton, Massachusetts championed the idea of a public university to serve "the working classes" in speeches and pamphlets in the 1830's. Support for Turner's ideas grew among farmer groups, newspaper editors, industrial societies, and state and federal legislators. Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont introduced the legislation which would provide grants of public land (land grants) to be sold to finance a university in each state to "…teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanical arts… in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes."  This landmark legislation represented a major shift in thinking about the purpose of higher education, which previously had been available only to the wealthy classes. The second Morrill Act (1890) further broadened the availability of higher education by providing federal appropriations to support "separate but equal" colleges for African Americans living in the Southern states. In 1994, Congress gave land grant status to twenty-nine Native American tribal colleges, thus continuing the tradition of extending the land grant ideal to marginalized peoples of the nation.

Although the need for a national system of agricultural research was identified by President George Washington, it took nearly 100 years for Congress to pass legislation creating the agricultural experiment station system with the Hatch Act of 1887. This legislation represented the second evolutionary step in the growth of the land grants. It provided federal funding "to promote scientific investigations and experiments respecting the principles and applications of agricultural science." The research function was thus added to the evolving land grant ideal. The third stage in the evolutionary growth of the land grants was accomplished with the passage of the Smith Lever Act in 1914, establishing the national Cooperative Extension Service "to aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture and home economics and to encourage the application of the same."

President of the University of Massachusetts Kenyon L. Butterfield was an early champion of the land grant ideal. In a 1904 speech, President Butterfield made a case for the three land grant functions when he called for each college to support "… its threefold function as an organ of research, as an educator of students, and as a distributor of information to those who cannot come to the college." Butterfield recognized the necessary integration of the three functions when he stated "…these are really coordinate functions and should be so recognized. The college should unify them into one comprehensive scheme. The principle of such unity is perfectly clear; for we have in research the quest for truth, in the education of students the incarnation of truth, and in extension work the democratization of truth." While Butterfield expressed this vision in 1904, it was many decades before his ideas were realized.

Thus, the land grant ideal evolved over time to serve the practical needs of a growing nation by integrating research and extension into the university experience and making that experience available to previously excluded women and men. I believe the next expression of the land grant ideal will fully extend the university to those citizens not in residence on its many campuses. It will do so in ways which further integrate research and teaching through online societal networks and community-focused university outreach. University of Wisconsin President C.R. Van Hise's 1904 statement that "a state university can only permanently succeed where its doors are open to all" must be reinterpreted to not only allow previously excluded groups in, but also to send university scholars out to meet the people of the nation where they live and work. New communications technologies and online networks will not only support this effort, but will make it a necessity if the public university system is to thrive in the 21st century.

Communications Technologies and the Public University

Communications technologies and online societal networks (Facebook for example) are rapidly changing the way people communicate, while enhancing global learning and breaking the monopoly on education currently held by residential universities. The system of higher education that was born during the era of the printing press is being challenged by communications technologies that are not only more far reaching but also more interactive and engaging than textbooks.  Books and journals provide unidirectional delivery of information and support a system that allows universities to control the creation and distribution of knowledge. The pattern of scholars joining together around great storehouses of accumulated knowledge, which began with Archimedes and Euclid working at the library of Alexandria in 250 BCE, will change in an era of instant access to large databases. The related pattern of students going to live and study in residence with scholars which began with Plato's academy, will change in the 21st century as scholars must learn to "go to the learning community" in new and creative ways.

A major transformation in centuries old patterns of learning is underway and universities must adapt quickly if they are to thrive in a world of rapid, interactive information flow. Many academics continue to respond with distain when challenged by the advances being made by businesses and a few aggressive universities in knowledge sharing and teaching technologies. Commercial interests have made serious inroads in specialized professional development and are prepared to capture the undergraduate and professional graduate market by contracting with "the best" professors and offering inexpensive and expertly-packaged teaching modules.  This trend should concern professors still lecturing form a podium.

The new educational tools include video servers offering stored lessons, computer linkages to customized reading materials, virtual reality simulations, computer and video conferencing, language translation programs, hypertextbooks, and digital discussions among students, faculty, members of public and business leaders. New communications technologies coupled with the emergence of societal networking and community-focused action groups will continue to erode the monopoly universities hold on advanced learning.  As the concept of university is replaced by the communiversity, advanced learning will be available to those formerly excluded from college by financial, space and time constraints. It remains uncertain whether most traditional universities will participate in this exciting and challenging educational movement.

The future might indeed be bleak for institutions unwilling to compete in this highly networked environment. While their current control over credentialing and a thousand years of tradition may partially protect some universities from immediate crisis, the pattern of increasing competition, public distrust, and declining support is likely to continue unless a new defining vision for public universities emerges. Extending current trends suggests that alternative futures for the land grants will be slow decline at best, or dramatic cuts at worst. On the other hand, by expanding the definition of "students" to all citizens, and maintaining a focus on serving the public good through affordable education (both online and in classroom), university-wide outreach and interrelated research, a new, revitalized communiversity may emerge.

The Land Grant University as Communiversity

The mission of the university is often expressed as the production, preservation and transmission of knowledge. I believe the evolution of the communiversity and the emergence of community-focused and online societal networked learning will extend this mission to acknowledge that productivity (application) of knowledge is just as important as the production (accumulation) of knowledge. Research must be fully integrated with online and campus teaching, as well as off-campus community outreach, to capture the synergy of each function and serve the educational needs of the nation. Preservation of knowledge will be available in both the written (published) and community-based (online) formats. Transmission will no longer be a one way "downloading" of information from the teacher to the student, but a mutual sharing of knowledge among learners. The communiversity of the 21st century will make "learning through inquiry" the integrative paradigm that finally resolves the tension between research and teaching.

In the 21st century communiversity, we must employ new ways of using communication technologies and societal networks that allow the "student" and the "instructor" to interact as co-learners, making learning itself the center of the educational environment. For communiversity learning to evolve, the first idea that needs to go is the assumption that knowledge must be validated by university experts to be "true." There is a long tradition in agricultural extension, for example, that university experts make recommendations that farmers are expected to implement. Agricultural extension educators have done this with the full authority of science, the arrogance of academia, and a nearly 100-year old federal law that mandates Extension educators not only aid in the diffusion of knowledge but ". . . encourage the application of the same." These 20th century assumptions must change.

Public universities should continue to offer technical expertise to individuals, businesses and communities. However to participate in community-focused learning and societal networks, universities must encourage more collaborative learning using techniques such as study circles, participatory research, and online community forums. The "teacher" must become more respectful of the "student's" own source of knowledge. Some academics are actively trying to invent new ways of working with off-campus communities. Outreach educators for example, who use participatory research and education techniques, acknowledge the contribution of all learners in the inquiry process, those from the university and those from the community. All participants are expected to help identify and define problems from their own perspective, suggest alternative solutions, test those solutions, and interpret results, thus capturing the synergy of both the scientific and the lay learning experience. The outcome of participatory learning is not only community-based knowledge and scholarly publications, but empowered community members more likely to act on their new knowledge.  Other university scholars are actively creating new online courses and engage in community-focused conversations using societal networks.   

Some university programs today, from professional development and consulting, to service learning and online continuing education, provide a foundation for the further development of the communiversity. Faculty of the new communiversity must do more than simply transfer technology and information to off-campus students. They must join hand-in-hand with citizens in mutually beneficial experiences, serving their individual needs of learners and the public good. Some university programs and faculty already meet this standard, but new models must also be explored.

One rapidly emerging forum for community-focused learning is the online discussion groups and listserves that emerge around specific public activities and issues.  An example of this is the Pioneer Valley Backyard Chicken Association.  While seemingly plebeian in nature and easily discounted by mainstream faculty, this group of active learners share questions, experience, and science-based knowledge on a daily basis through a simple listserv focused on their interest.  To support this group and similar like-minded citizen-investigators, the author sponsors a blog called Just Food Now as well as a linked Facebook and Twitter group created to share knowledge and experience on food self-sufficiency (3).  To stay linked to what people are saying (both the questions and the answers) the author monitors several listserves and Facebook groups on regular basis.  In addition, an RSS (really simple syndication) web feed provides access to a customized selection of news headlines, blogs, professional journal articles, and audio and video files online.  This societal network of co-learners is engaged in community-focused research and education in ways that are generally undervalued by the academy. 

Another public program that should be adapted by the new American communiversity is the "Dutch science shop," where citizens can access their public universities. Local university-managed and community-based offices serve as access points to public university and other community networks through communications technologies. In these "shops", citizens acquire and share knowledge, and initiate research studies to solve problems of importance to themselves, their neighbors and their neighborhoods. These centers also offer an excellent training ground for students through service learning and internships. In the new land grant communiversity, these local centers might serve as "free spaces" (4) where community-focused learning and participatory democracy are fostered. This tradition which extends back to the Greek polis, encourages citizens to be directly involved in civic activities in support of the common good. Community learning centers would offer a public space for citizens to build self-respect, group identity, and gain public skills, while encouraging local learning and action. These centers would provide land grant universities with the added benefit of engaging scholars in the public sphere.

The Need for Change

In conclusion, I argue that a radical transformation of the public land grant university is needed to better serve the citizens, businesses and communities of the nation. Citizens should be actively engaged in the research and education programs of their land grant communiversity through programs in university outreach and online engagement. Of course, these changes will not occur without much dialogue and debate.  Dr. A. Bartlett Giamatti, past president of Yale University wrote, the university should be….

"…a community open to new ideas, to disagreement, to debate, to criticism, to the clash of opinions and convictions."  

Personally, I look forward to the debate (5).



1. Thanks to Richard Sclove, former Director of the Loka Institute in Amherst, Massachusetts for sharing the term, "communiversity" and his thinking on the "Dutch Science Shops."

2. For my essay outlining the history of higher education, see;   Other writings by the author may be found at:

3. See;   And for the Just Food Now blog, Facebook and Twitter groups, see:  For an international societal network focused on sustainability and higher education, see:

4. This idea is described by S. Evans and H. Boyte in their book, Free Spaces, 1986.

5. Comments and feedback are welcome.  Please send them to;