Lets put the \”public\” back in the public university


Education for Sustainability should be a primary goal of public universities.  Here\’s why…..

\"\"As someone who continues to believe in the original purpose of the U.S. land grant university system, I am particularly concerned by the present state of affairs. I\”m told by some of my colleagues and a few administrators that I can\’t talk about the \”land grant ideal\” because nobody believes in it anymore.  Well….. I do.

Sorry, but in times of severe financial stress I believe that a re-energized focus on creating and sharing knowledge in service to the public good remains our best strategy.

\"\"Some of our university leaders have taken a more pragmatic approach.  When public funds are not adequate to \”keep the ship afloat\”, they solicit help from private enterprise –  after all, they have they money!   My own university had a chancellor whose favorite phrase was \”money matters.\”

Clever…..  but I prefer \”mission matters.\” I hope we choose not to quit on the public mission of the university – not just yet.

I believe that our understanding of how the university serves American citizens, those today, and those yet to be born, is key to our future as a public institution. This blog explores what it might mean to be a university that serves the public good.

Most of us working at a public university probably have a notion that we have an obligation to serve the public – somehow.  But who is the public, and what is the public good?   Dr. Jeffrey Burkhardt, Professor of Agriculture and Natural Resource Ethics and Policy at the University of Florida, suggested that there are interests, common to all, which he described as \”basic human needs.\”  They are;

  • adequate, affordable, nutritionally adequate food;
  • adequate affordable, clothing and shelter;
  • a livable environment;
  • secure means to provide for one\’s livelihood; and
  • accessible educational opportunities.

\"\"We should serve the public good by addressing these basic human needs, and thus optimizing for the environmental, economic and social well-being of the entire community.  Some of us call this educating for sustainability. It seems to me that research and educational programs which support the quest for sustainability should be a feature of every public university.  This is a legitimate use of public funds and an appropriate investment by local, state and national government.

Of course, public institutions should not be engaged in work that private enterprise can do better.   Public funded institutions must however take responsibility for providing goods and services that have a significant social benefit when they would not otherwise be provided by the private sector.  Public/private partnerships are also appropriate when they clearly serve the public. There are three categories of goods and services that are appropriate for public investment:

1.     Public good and services are those which can be used in a non-rival manner by all of society. Once created, these goods are available to all without additional cost. Private enterprise is unlikely to invest in goods used in a non-rival manner because it is difficult to capture a return on their investment. Knowledge created from basic research is an example of a public good which is more valuable to society than any one individual or company.

2.     Private good and services subject to market failure may have a value to individuals, but for which the private sector is likely to underinvest. Government may choose to provide such goods to individuals if they have significant social benefits. It is appropriate for public universities to provide a direct educational service to individuals when it also serves the larger community.  Environmental education is a prime example.

3.     Social welfare goods and services are provided by government for reasons of equity.  Educational programs for populations at risk, access to food, and the availability of education to all are considered social welfare goods.

These same guidelines should be used when we are considering public/private partnerships. We cannot afford to be engaged in work more appropriate for the private sector.

Public agricultural programs can serve the public good through research and educational programs on agricultural sustainability, food quality and safety, human nutrition, food sovereignty, and environmental integrity. This is just as true today as it was in 1862 when the land grant system was created by an act of Congress.  The Morrill Act established 69 colleges across the nation, paid for with grants of federal land that was sold to create the first public university system in the world.  This was a truly revolutionary act.

\"\"When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, he said: \”The land-grant university system is being built on behalf of the people who have invested in these public institutions their hopes, their support and their confidence.\”

If we have courage and vision, I believe we can lead the way back to the future and re-establish the financial support and the confidence of the American people – but only if we don\’t quit on the public mission!

Lets put the \”public\” back in the public university by addressing the most basic of human needs.  Education for sustainability may be our best investment if we want to recommit our work in service to public good!


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.