Land grant status: A responsibility and obligation

As an academic, I prefer facts and evidence for making decisions. As a communication studies scholar, I lecture on the importance of including stakeholder views and sound information when deliberating policy. So far, in the op-eds and legislative hearings, these principles have largely been ignored when it comes to SB287. Whether all research institutions in Nevada technically are considered land grant institutions of our state and whether that opens the door to substantial federal funding that UNLV and DRI are supposedly missing out on, the facts have been misrepresented.

I will concede that the framers of our state Constitution left things vague on what would eventually be included under the header of “State University” and could not anticipate the higher education landscape of 2021. However, what is not disputed is that what would become the University of Nevada, Reno only exists because of the Morrill Act of 1862, in which the federal government granted land to states to enable them to utilize those funds to establish a “land grant” institution of higher education. In return, that land grant institution was obligated to provide certain programs (agriculture and mechanical arts specifically) and was intended to open higher education to all. Research in agriculture was then expected to be shared with communities through Extension education programs—land grant institutions are defined by this specific purpose. UNR has taken this mission seriously, and is the only institution out of the three that has maintained the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources, Agriculture Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension programs in all counties. In return, the federal government provides capacity grants (Hatch and Smith-Lever) to maintain these programs to allow UNR to continue to fulfill our land grant purpose, statewide.

For UNR, our land grant designation is a matter of fact. In return for federal funding to establish our institution, we provide specific research and education in return. It’s a contract. A responsibility. Of course, being the land grant institution is a source of pride, as it indicates our specific purpose and service to the state. It is part of our identity as an institution; it is part of our history. In SB287 hearings, some have argued UNR has no right to claim this designation, but they overlook the fact that the land grant designation comes with responsibility; responsibility that UNR has fulfilled where other institutions in our state have not.

Some critics have noted that a land grant designation might put UNR “on a pedestal.” I would counter that indicating our identity as a land grant institution is merely truth in advertising. If one were looking to study agriculture and natural resources, they would search for federally designated land grant institutions. UNR doesn’t include A&M in our name as some land grants do, but that interested student would not be disappointed to find that we do, indeed, offer the programs they seek. What the sponsors of SB287 overlook is that “land grant” is not just a name or a brand, it signifies the actual programming offered at the institution.

The proponents of SB287 assume there is some prestige to being a land grant institution that opens doors to grant funding or some exclusive club. I would counter that being a land grant is no more prestigious than noting our status as the oldest university in the state. It is, again, a matter of fact that comes with obligations. Historic institutions are nice, but require more upkeep than newer buildings. Similarly, providing the programming required of land grants requires the “up keep” of specific degree programs, faculty to research and teach, and infrastructure specific to those programs. To cut any of our agricultural or Extension programs would be to default on our obligation as a land grant designee. Proponents of SB287 are not considering this responsibility or cost when suggesting that all research institutions be “named” land grants. This move only aims to give credit to other institutions for the work UNR historically has done like some nightmarish group project.

The historical nature of land grant status comes with other responsibilities and obligations. The lands “granted” by the federal government were not theirs to give. This legacy is one that UNR also takes seriously and that we are finally taking long overdue steps to correct by addressing how to serve our native tribal populations whether through developing Indigenous Studies programs, Paiute language courses, or support of other state legislation that reduces costs for education to tribal members. Again, proponents of SB 287 do not consider all the obligations of land grant status in their arguments.

Proponents of SB 287 suggest that having a land grant designation somehow gives faculty a “leg-up” in applying for research grants. I would counter that being part of a Carnegie R1 institution (as both UNR and UNLV are) better accomplishes that task as it indicates the ability for an institution to manage and support the variety of grants available for research. Land grant status is not a determining factor for federal science agencies in awarding grants. It doesn’t matter what type of institution you come from, grants are awarded on the basis of the merits of the research project alone. Plenty of faculty from R1 institutions will have lists of grant applications not funded on their CVs more than the projects funded—that is the nature of competitive grant systems.

It is true that there are grants through the USDA that are specific to land grant-designated institutions or Extension programs (many of those grants also are available to Hispanic-Serving Institutions as UNLV is, UNR is not). Those grants are specific to support agricultural and extension specific programs; again, land grant status is not a determining factor for most of these grants. When it comes to federal funding, an institution can only receive grants that faculty apply for. Faculty only apply for grants that fit their specific research. An added “land grant” designation is meaningless unless there are faculty and programs that are also added to seek out those grants.

I do not disagree that increasing federal grants to support the work at our institutions is important. But SB287 won’t change grant productivity. Faculty don’t have time to apply for grants, much less conduct research, when we have to adapt our work around budget cuts, hiring freezes and furloughs. We can’t develop and mentor researchers that will successfully compete for large grants when those faculty leave to other states not facing higher education cuts. We can’t support faculty seeking those large federal grants without support staff to help them manage the process. State resources and investment in higher education does receive a return on investment in federal grants—deciding on how to name institutions does not.

All of our higher education institutions have their own unique histories, identities, and purposes that they serve to educate Nevada. Given the limited resources in higher education and our smaller institutional system, there is strength when all institutions play their unique parts in our shared educational mission. Land grant just happens to be part of UNR’s history and purpose. Our land grant educational mission is one we take seriously. SB 287 seeks to ignore the true history and service of UNR as a land grant institution, and the hard work our faculty put into this mission should be prioritized.

Amy Pason, Ph.D., is serving as Faculty Senate Chair (2020-2022) and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, as well as the Communication Studies Graduate Director, at UNR.