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Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Land Grant Act

Public Mission, Urban Challenges:

As the University commemorates the 150-year anniversary of its land-grant mission, it continues to explore new ways to address urban concerns.

Of the 73 land-grant research universities in the country, the University of Minnesota is among the few that are located in large, urban communities. This unique setting makes it possible for the University faculty and students to study first-hand the housing, education, health and economic development issues commonly associated with urban settings.

It has also enabled the University to better understand how to focus efforts over the years to fulfill its original land-grant mission to promote higher education as a way to foster learning, discovery and engagement for the public good.

Much has changed since the Morrill Act, also known as the Land-Grant College Act, was passed in 1862 to help establish public institutions in each state where people could learn practical trades such as agriculture and mechanical arts.  And while the University remains committed to its land-grant mission, the complex challenges people face today have made it more important than ever to find new ways to effectively promote access to higher education and collaborate to advance knowledge that benefits people locally, regionally and around the world.

An evolving mission

To tackle 21st-century challenges the University, like many other land-grant research universities, has increased efforts to engage with the public by collaborating with communities to address issues and problem solve.

A shining example of this strategy in action is the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach Engagement Center (UROC), says Robert Jones, the University’s senior vice president for Academic Administration, University of Minnesota System. Jones oversaw the creation of UROC, which opened on Minneapolis’ Northside in 2009 following discussions between the University and the community following an escalation in poverty rates, gun violence, out-of-home-placement of children and widespread disinvestment in the area.

“We opened UROC because we decided that we needed a physical presence in this community in order to more effectively carry out our vision as an urban land grant university,” Jones explains. “We haven’t always been clear about our land-grant role, so going forward we knew we needed to create seamless partnerships with communities to solve some of the complex societal challenges that are very prevalent in communities like north Minneapolis.”

Through UROC, the University has deepened its commitment to the Northside, a partnership that began in 1968 with the opening of UROC’s partner center, the University’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA). While CURA offers a variety of research-based programs that service organizations in the community, UROC houses many programs and initiatives to address health, education and economic needs of Northside residents.

UROC’s Business and Technology Center, for example, provides resources to promote economic development. The Broadband Access Project is helping to make high-speed Internet access available to residents of 11 underserved communities. Other programs and partnerships are focused on early childhood education initiatives, bridging the achievement gap for children of all ages, violence prevention, and health and nutrition issues. 

After working to gain the trust of the Northside community, UROC has made tremendous progress by connecting residents with resources they would not have had access to otherwise, Jones says. But there is still much to be done.

“The Northside was selected as a community partner because, as we thought about our role and obligation as an urban research university, we thought it was the best place to test out new ideas and ways to have an impact,” he explains. “We knew that to help resolve the challenges of the community we couldn’t stay in the ivory tower, we had to have a physical presence in that community.”

A year of celebration and exploration

This year, the University will commemorate the 150th anniversary of its land-grant mission throughout 2012 with UMN Land Grant 150. In addition to examining the impact of the University’s campuses, programs and collaborations across the state and around the world, the commemoration will feature a number of events designed to explore the land-grant legacy and define a land-grant vision for the 21st century. 

On May 2, University of Minnesota President Eric W. Kaler will host Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor in “Public Mission, Urban Challenges: The 21st-Century University,” a UMN Land Grant 150 keynote event on the role of the 21st-century university in meeting urban challenges. Syracuse University has become a national model for comprehensive university public engagement under Cantor’s leadership, and she writes and lectures extensively on the role of universities as anchor institutions in their communities.

The event is free and open to the public, although registration is required. The conversation will be streamed live at http://landgrant150.umn.edu/greatconversations/. For complete details, visit http://landgrant150.umn.edu.