Land Grant Fierce w/ Stephen Gavazzi, PhD

Travis Smith sits down with The Ohio State University professor and author Stephen Gavazzi to discuss the history and recent issues facing land-grant universities and college athletics.

HEA:We’re here at Ohio State. In the backdrop is Ohio Stadium, the football stadium. So thank you for being with me for the Higher Ed Athletics Podcast.

I really want to talk about land-grant institutions today and how it compares in the world of athletics. You wrote a book with President Gee, who’s now at West Virginia University, about land grants of the future. Can you explain briefly, the definition and the history of land grants in higher education? And then what are some well-known land grants that maybe people in athletics might know, but they don’t even realize maybe it’s a land grant?

Gavazzi: Well, first of all, thank you for allowing me to be on your podcast. I appreciate that. And so, the best way I think to sum up the land grant universities are by looking at the three federal grants that created the three-part mission. So first, in 1862, Senator Justin Morrill from Vermont, had put through an act in Congress, which granted land of 35,000 acres to every state that was then in the Union with the express purpose of being able to take the money either from the sale of the land or through the rental of land, it was theirs to use, but for higher education. And what was unique and remarkable about this, and by the way, this was signed by President Abraham Lincoln into law in 1862. It was the first… these were the first public universities in our country, up to this point, everything else was a private university. And so, this was really the beginning of the public higher educational system here in the United States. 

That was followed by a series of other acts, I’m going to just point out two more that were really important. That was the, the Hatch Act of 1877. And that was passed in order to give us our research mission, which was primarily agricultural at first, but it eventually became part of a very large research portfolio that covers just about everything that we study these days. And then third, in 1914, it was the Smith-Lever Act. And that created what we now know as Cooperative Extension services. And that mission was to disseminate the teaching and research that we were generating out into the communities.

So a lot of the Big Ten and we’ll get to them in a little bit, too, but what are maybe 5 to 10 land grants off the top of your head that people might not even realize from power house athletics? What are some of those that are the land grants in their state?

Well, let’s just, also them bringing in, since you asked about who’s who, we also should talk about the second land grant act of 1890, which took a lot of the historically Black colleges and universities and brought them into the land grant fold. They were given money, not quite the same amount of money. And in fact, there have been these disparities over the years that have impacted them in a tremendous way. But a lot of the historically black colleges and universities that people know today are actually also land-grant universities.

So just wanted to throw that one in there. But here are some shockers for people who probably, not necessarily following athletics, but let me throw out MIT which is a land grant; Cornell, which is a land grant; Tuskegee University, a land grant. Right. But then you think of many of the powerhouses, right, and especially when you talk about the Big Ten, almost all of them are actually land-grant universities. So Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, they’re all the premier land-grant universities, and obviously, also athletic powerhouses.

Yeah. And Purdue instead of IU, because there’s two in the same state.


Northwestern is not but most of them are. And so, that’s one conference that when I… reading through your book about land grants, being in the Midwest, I think about land grants out of the Big Ten. 

But what led you and President Gee to decide to write a book about land grants? It’s pretty common to write books about the future of higher education, but I haven’t seen too many focus on the land grant mission.

So president Gee, who obviously, now is at West Virginia University, but has been the president of Ohio State twice, and I actually met President Gee in my first year back in 1991. So I’ve been here for 28 years. He had come the year before in 1990. And I had always respected him as someone who was very student-focused and we’ll probably get to the student focus in a little bit of our conversation, a little bit down the ways. But he was also very community focused, very interested in building communities. He left. He went to Brown, then he went to Vanderbilt. 

And then he came back to Ohio State. When he came back, I was actually the dean of one of Ohio State’s satellite campuses, a regional campus in Mansfield, which is about halfway between here in Columbus and Cleveland. And so, by that time, being a senior administrator, I was actually very focused on campus community issues and wrote a book on campus community relationships. I interviewed President Gee for that book, just as he was stepping down here at Ohio State, and before he went to West Virginia University. And in fact, as it turns out, he knows so much about campus community relationships, I ended up dedicating a whole chapter to him in that book. 

While the book was published, I signed it, sent him a copy. He said, “Hey, I really especially loved chapter nine.” That’s the chapter that President Gee was in. And he said, “We need to write a book together.” And I thought at first he was kidding until three weeks later, he had written that in a note. And his chief of staff wrote back to me and said, President Gee wants to know why you’re ignoring him. And I said, “I didn’t realize he was actually serious about this.” But when I got on the phone and talked to him, he said, he was a great believer in campus community relationship building. And he, he truly believed that that was part of the land grant mission to give back to the community. And he said he didn’t know if all of his colleagues, all of the other presidents of the other land grants felt the same way. And so we approached President Drake, Michael Drake here [at Ohio State] and the two of them actually sent a letter out inviting all of these presidents to take part in the interviews. As it turns out, I had thought maybe I would be lucky enough to get 10 of them; 27 of them immediately signed up and said, “Yes, I want to be a part of this study.”

Leading into that, the survey in the book, you see a lot of the answers are open-ended questions or responses, which I think is great. And it keeps the identity hidden. But how many presidents were invited to the survey? Because 27 seems like a lot.

Yeah, it was. I had to redo my research protocol.

Because you’re like, “Oh, well, I was expecting just a few.”

Yeah, I said I was only going to get 10.

That made writing a book a lot easier too…

It did.

You can get all these responses. But now do all 50 states have a land grant? 

Yeah, there’s actually 110 land-grant universities.

So it expanded every time the act like was added?

Yeah, that’s exactly what happened was that, originally, there weren’t 50 states in 1862. So they continued to get added on as time went by. Many of them were territories, though, and so even the territories were actually given the money at the time. And so that was, I think, helpful in terms of setting all of that up. But, so the 110, they’re not all equivalent, because there was another act in 1994 that brought a lot of the tribal colleges into this. And most of them are two-year schools. And so, where you don’t see a university that has a historically Black college or university, you’ll see one that will have a Native American college.

So that survey, what was kind of the main theme of questions that you were trying to get out of them? There’s a SWOT analysis of the [Land-Grant] mission. But what was some of the themes? 

Well, again, going back to what President Gee was most interested in, we wanted to know how many of them are really centered on the mission being giving back to the communities. And so when we did the SWOT analysis and we asked about the strengths, the weaknesses, the opportunities, and threats, they were all couched inside of this idea that it was in service to communities. What were the strengths of their president and institutions in terms of serving the communities and so on? So that was really the focus. What we found, though, and I just want to tell you is that there was a wide array of responses to this. Now, you know, all of these presidents are under the umbrella of having a land grant mission, but their interpretation of the land grant mission is quite varied.

Over the years the challenges that every institution is going to face, I imagine it would get harder, what the land grant mission is, you can lose focus. So hopefully, even by doing the survey and asking it, you may have recharged them to analyze their own institution. And maybe as we say goodbye to the 2020 visions, and we start looking at whatever the next key buzzword is for the next strategic plans, maybe we’ll start seeing more people, which I imagine like President Gee, that was something that would make him happy is if presidents like himself are now looking back and saying, “Are we fulfilling this [Land-Grant mission]?”


And the connection here with athletics is sort of interesting. Because your book kind of inspired Washington State University when they were doing their strategic plan for the athletic department. So how did that come about as far as how you were contacted about helping out with that process? 

Well, yeah, so first of all, this was much bigger than athletics. So this was part of this overall plan. But the history of this was actually quite interesting. I was on Twitter one day, and I saw a young woman who was holding up a wine glass. And she said, “Cheers, President Schultz, thank you so much for buying me the land grant universities for the future book.” And I wrote back as a joke, and just simply said, “I didn’t realize that my book paired so well with white wine.” She writes back again, she said, “Do you know that our president is blogging about your book?” And then she gave me the blog site, the URL, and so I went to it. And here, President Schultz had written this whole big thing on how he’s read this book. And, this was amazing, he wanted to buy a book for anyone at his university that wanted to read it, because he wanted to start a conversation.

At least I knew why all of a sudden, the Washington Northwest Territories were, you know, experiencing an explosion in book sales. Well, as it turns out, he thought that maybe he would buy 100 of them. I think at last count, they bought over 500 books, there were that many people who were interested. 

And of course, I’ll get to the second part of the story in terms of how I got connected to Washington State. After seeing this and after reading the blog, I wrote to his chief of staff, Chris Hoyt. And I said, “Chris, if I can help out in any way, shape, or form, I’m really gratified to have seen this, and let me know.” And, and she told me, “Well, President Schultz is actually going to be featuring your book in his state of the campus next week. So you should probably watch that.”

So now, imagine, I’m watching because it’s being live cast, I’m watching the president use my book as a prop during his talk. And again, it served his purpose because he wanted to re-center Washington State University on the core land grant mission. And for him, it really was very community-oriented, it was giving back to the community. So in short order, I was actually invited out. And so, I began to understand how their strategic planning was all encompassing. Obviously, athletics was going to be a part of it, just like their outreach and engagement to the community was going to be a part of it. It was really going to be a very holistic approach to how they were going to be thinking about strategic planning over the course of the next several decades, actually, as they began to do that.

It’d be cool to see if that spreads, too, because, I mean, I’d love for more institutions to do that. And I think that going back to what I said earlier, it kind of centers the whole mission of your institution, and athletics needs to be part of the institution [strategic plan]. So maybe that can even spread to them because they engage with the community a lot whenever having a sporting event.


Has that same kind of conversation come up with a strategic plan at Ohio State? I mean, have you all had that… the focus on a strategic plan?

So, it’s interesting that you say that. Well, so, Ohio State is really different than almost every other land grant. Why here? We’re sitting in the middle of the city, the 13th largest city in America.  And that makes us different because the vast majority of land grants, with the exception of the University of Minnesota, which is in Minneapolis, which is I think, the 34th largest city in America, and University of Maryland, College Park, which is more suburban, not really urban, but certainly not rural. Almost all of the other land grant universities, especially the 1862 land grants are all in very rural areas. 

So I say all that because Ohio State is very different. When we have 100,000 people come for our football games, they have to park within a city. That’s very different than when I was an undergrad at Penn State. There’s plenty of parking out on East Campus near Beaver Stadium, because they’re out in the middle of nowhere. And so, Ohio State has always been really different. And I bring that up because I went to my then boss, when we started doing this work, Joe Steinmetz, who is now the chancellor at the University of Arkansas. So you know, he’s leading up the Razorbacks right now. I said to him, “Do you think we should do something on campus community relationships?” And he said to me, I’ll never forget this, “We have to be very careful about that. Because we’ll have to tell everyone not to think of the football team and not think of the medical center when they think about what we do for the community.” And he said that because he knew that it was so lodged in people’s minds that sports and medicine were the two ways that we actually, obviously, did connect, usually in a really good way with the communities.

Yeah, when I was driving around, you see on the, the signs on campus is medical campus this way, athletic campus, this way academic campus. And that just shows you how, for one, how big athletics is here. It’s one of the biggest athletic departments in the country. I think there’s over 1,000 student athletes, which is almost unheard of in college athletics. But it’s just crazy how big of an institution Ohio State is, and how, whenever you walk around, I could see how that would be a problem to, you know, how you are going to focus on everything. So was the concern that they would only focus on athletics and the med school and they wouldn’t recognize the other things so you couldn’t analyze how the rest of the community?

Well, again, Dr. Steinmetz was just trying to make sure that…

They are aware of it?

Yeah… that, because of what’s so unique about Ohio State, I think that he was just being cautious in terms of what people normally and typically thought of.

So that was a while ago. Has it been revisited? Or is it just something that, you know, probably going to be hard to revisit, putting a strategic plan and making sure that we’re connected to community?

Well, so I think Ohio State now is in the middle of its own strategic planning process. And obviously, athletics and the Medical Center are going to be a big part of that. But it’s not the only thing. And in fact, let me just say something else about all land grants, and not just Ohio State, which is that, oftentimes when… after this book got out, and I was doing different interviews, I would inevitably have reporters ask me, “Well, what I don’t understand what’s the real difference then between a land grant and all these other public institutions? Because there are more than just the land grants now, right?”

Yeah, the research one institutions and flagship institutions for example?

Right. But the big difference is Cooperative Extension services. That’s the one thing is that every land grant university has statewide reach. And that’s what makes them different than all of the other, you know, all the other public universities and certainly different than the privates, because the privates don’t have Cooperative Extension services either. So the need to refocus, I think, always has to include Cooperative Extension services. And we saw that at Washington State. We saw that they were very much geared towards figuring out their statewide reach, and how Cooperative Extension services was going to be at the foreground of that, instead of, I think, what unfortunately has happened, especially more recently, which is that they’ve become more of the background focus rather than the foreground.

And you mentioned in your book a little bit about online education. I’ve always, I mean, I’m not an expert in online education, but I’ve noticed that more of the players in online education are the bigger, traditional institutions. It used to just be some schools. Now, it seems like everyone is getting into online. Is that something that you think helps the land grant mission? Or is it some things you just can’t replicate online that you can’t do like the Co-op Extension? Can that really be done online very well?

Yeah, so they actually have e-extension [online]. So that’s a big part of what they are doing because it reaches more of the students. Absolutely, and well, and again it reaches more of the community residents as well, so that you don’t just have to be a student to be impacted by the university. So I think that there’s no stopping this. I think there’s only going to be more online presence by all universities, public, private, land grant, non-land grant. However, what you can’t take away, though, is the core experience of being a part of an educational process. And I think that that’s very difficult to replicate, especially as you become more focused in on whatever the subject matter is that you’re most interested in. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It just means that it’s, it’s much, much, much more difficult.

You shared an article with me that you wrote about college athletics.

Soiling the land grant legacy that has been in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Yeah, which a lot of the content I try and share with people in athletics comes from the Chronicle. I think they do a great job. Can you tell us what that article was about and, and how it represented athletics? 

So it came right at the outset of the death that had occurred at the University of Maryland with the football player. But it was in many ways a culmination of what was also happening at Ohio State with the Strauss sexual abuse case, what was happening with the Sandusky case at Penn State, and what was happening at Michigan State as well with another part of the sexual abuse that was happening there, with their physician. All of this was to say that it was important to pay attention to the fact that these scandals were happening at land grant universities, which were supposed to be the people’s universities. And so, in short, that article was really a canary in a coal mine article saying, “If these land grant universities don’t get in touch with their land grant mission, they’re going to be continually at risk of having lost control of what it is that’s supposed to make them great.” And again, for better or worse, their athletic programs are oftentimes at the forefront of their connection to the community. And so, if all they’re known for is scandals inside of the athletics programs, that’s not going to be doing anyone any good.

Yeah, and it hurts the brand of the institution. Especially at that level, athletics is the brand of an institution. And so that can represent the institution in a bad way. That’s kind of what I’m fighting against is the stigma of if one or two scandals happen, then all the NCAA and all of college athletics looks like it shouldn’t or can’t fit within the institution.

What is the punishment? Can anything happen to a land grant where they could lose some of that endowment money? Or is it just accreditation? Or is there a specific thing and legislation that you can punish a land grant, can you take back land? Can you take back the money this far along because it’s so far removed?

No. So part of what has already come into play is the accreditation piece.

Just like Maryland.

Yeah, Maryland, right. And so, that is a punishment. The land can’t get taken back. The land has been sold. But again, donors are going to be less likely to give, especially to an athletics program. I think that those universities that have seen these kinds of things happen oftentimes have been punished in that way. Now, just generally, donations, I think, have gone down at some of these institutions. 

However, the other thing I think that also needs to be brought into play here is that they’re also going to have indirect punishments as well. Enrollment, for instance, people may not want to, to enroll at the same level, they may think less of the university that it fails to have that kind of control over their athletics programs. And quite frankly, I think that these programs may get a reputation among student athletes as well, that maybe this isn’t a good place to go. And you know, for those student athletes who may be thinking about more than just winning at all costs, they and their parents are going to be making, I think, very different decisions about the places that they want their sons and daughters to go.

Just thinking about the money part of land grants to which the recent news about University of Texas, and they’re spinning off of a new endowment out of out of them their large fund, about financial aid. So they recently announced they’re going to cover all tuition for a big population of students. Was that something that came out of… it seemed like it came out of that original land grant because that revenue is donated land that just turned into, it’s worth billions now because it was back in the 1800s, or 1900s. Is that part of the land grant that’s part of the land grant mission that they were able to fund that?

So the University of Texas is not the land grant in Texas.

Is it Texas A&M?

It’s not of the same fund. So the financial aid piece, they’re pulling the money out of their contribution from the overall fund that Texas A&M gets, too. 

Yeah. I’m far from an expert, I must say. I’m trying to learn from you [laughs]

No, no, no, that’s okay. You know, there are other public universities that also had land granted to them through ways other than the Morrill Act of 1862. So that, I think, that just needs to be said. But saying that, there are actually several good examples of universities, and that includes Ohio State, that have done similar kinds of things. And not because of the historical connection to the land that was granted to them and money that came off that but just the felt obligations to help those who are most in need.

One of the things that we talk about in the book is that there is a tremendous imbalance between the amount of money that land grant institutions send or give to students that are based on merit versus those that are based on need. So the original 1862 Act, the wording that they used was that you are going to be educating the sons of toil. They didn’t even include daughters at that point, because it was really men who are going to college at that point, but of toil translates this to modern day as the working classes. And yet, if you look at most of the enrollments on the main campuses of these land-grant universities, these are not actually the sons and daughters of toil or the working classes, these are the children of parents who are actually pretty well off. You know, you look at Ohio State for a second, because I know these figures best off the top of my head, four out of every five students who come to the Columbus campus as freshmen come from families that are at or above the mean income level in this state. That’s not the working class.

Interestingly, though, again, because I was the dean of a regional campus, I know this fact also, which is that 50 percent of all of the students who come to the regional campuses are Pell Grant eligible, which tells you that these are, in fact, the students who are coming from the working class families.

Why is that? Why do they go to the regional? Is it just because maybe closer to where they’re living?

It’s, first of all, closer geographically. Second, oftentimes, they also don’t get into the Columbus campus because we know that there’s also a bias between students who are more well off, and their ACT and SAT scores. And so, that’s another reason why they don’t get in here. The regional campuses are less expensive. Here at Ohio State, they’re one-third less expensive. So there are a lot of different reasons why that happens. But again, it gets back to the central question, which is, “Who should we be giving aid to?” And I’m a very firm believer that land grant universities especially should be providing funds first and foremost, for students in need, not students for merit purposes.

The last thing I want to end it on is about the importance of understanding the institution you’re at. So, for me or someone else in athletics, or academics, any campus, how important do you think it is to know, moving forward, what type of institution you’re at? Whether you’re at a land grant, whether you’re at a religious institution, instead of just thinking they’re all the same, I mean, what can we all do to maybe understand what type of school we’re at? Should they know that?

So we end the book, like talking about becoming, for people at land grants, they need to become more land grant fierce. That’s the terminology that we use. And the reason that we say that is that there has been, we think, enormous pressure over the years for all colleges and universities to become more like one another, rather than differentiating them and saying, “Everybody has a different slant or a different take on the higher education mission.” So we actually use examples of religious institutions. And we say that we believe that Notre Dame, as an example, should become more fiercely Catholic than it is; that Brigham Young should become more fiercely Mormon and so on. And so, in the same way, we also think that land grant universities need to be more fiercely land grant.

That also means then that regional universities should become more fiercely regional and paying attention to what that core mission is. I think that should be driving everything. And in fact, I think what we will have to see, especially as demographic shift, is that colleges and universities will either have a niche, and they’ll fulfill that niche, or they’re not going to be here anymore. So I’m a huge believer in those early adopters beginning to really grab hold of the kind of university that they are and make a big deal of that..

I do think that athletics needs to do a better job of this. We have to let the student athletes know and institutions need to try and figure out that not every school can be the exact same. And I’m reminded of a quote that was in the Chronicle, that the governor of Alaska with them going through their situation, he had said that, and this has been echoed before is we can’t be everything to everyone. And that got me thinking even more about other institutions. Everyone is trying I have 100-plus majors similar to… I think part of the rankings is how many majors do you have? And I’m worried about that type of stuff where everyone is just going to become a Walmart where everyone is the same everywhere across the country.

So one of the things that, if you don’t mind me riffing off, is in giving some credit to President Gee at West Virginia University. No matter where he has been, he has been student-focused. However, because he’s been at very different institutions, the way that he has focused on those students had to have been very different. So the students, and I’ll just use two great polar examples, the students at Ohio State, you have to think of them differently, large public land-grant university, then the students at Brown, small, elite, private university. 

I think that that then translates back to what you are obviously most interested in, which is the student athletes. So I think student athletes at a large public land-grant university necessarily need to be seen in a different light with very different pressures on them. I’ve had the great fortune of having many athletes in my classes over the years. And in fact, I have done independent studies with several of them who have been interested enough in this topic area to really do deep dives into this. And it’s very clear to me that these student athletes are not always getting the same kind of experience, first of all, that the other students are getting. And I think there are pluses and minuses to that. But I also think that they’re clearly not getting the same kind of experiences that they would have gotten if they were at a very different kind of university. So I think that, in good faith, I think that athletic directors, athletic programs should be doing a really good job, a much better job, I think is probably fair to say, of being more transparent about who the university is that these athletes are coming to, and how they fit into the mission of the [institution].

With conference realignment, athletic conferences, it’s changed a little bit. But for the most part, most athletic conferences, similar type of institution, similar size institutions, similar geographic area, similar mission. And so, that’s something I’m trying to hone-in on. And what I’m going to be looking at is the last time conference realignment happened years back, before we shifted to the Power Five is, did that get more out of whack with the institutional fit? I’m reminded, being here on a Big Ten campus, that Northwestern does not fit with the rest of the Big Ten institutions outside of athletics, it’s a lot smaller campus, it’s a private institution.


But for the most part, you’re looking at 13 institutions that are very similar of the 14. 


So I think presidents, athletic directors are very tied to their athletic conference. And so, I’m hoping that might be a way to engage some of them. I think that’s a great point where you just said is that they do need to do a better job at being clear upfront. And I think that starts with the official visit. All these recruits are coming on official visits. And we need to have some type of verification that they know what they’re getting into. And on top of this, we have all this transfer discussion. A lot of that is because they come here and it’s not a fit.


Thank you so much for being on the Higher Ed Athletics Podcast, Dr. Gavazzi.

Thank you. I appreciate it.

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