On campus: A department head tries to change the academic culture

  • Glen Whipple

  • Tractor drawing

    Diane Sylvain
  • Books on shelf drawing

    Diane Sylvain

Note: this feature article is one of several in a special issue about land grant universities in the West.

If the West's land-grant universities are to evolve, faculty like Glen Whipple are keys to that evolution. Whipple is head of the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Just as important, he just spent 11 months as acting dean of the College of Agriculture. If you think of land-grant universities as churches, then the College of Agriculture is the main cathedral, and the dean is the archbishop.

Whipple is interesting because in addition to being a conservative and cautious member of the agribusiness establishment, he is a reformer. His drive for reform comes from his months as acting dean, where he experienced the heavy pressures for change on land grant universities. He is also interesting because of his soft but steady approach to creating change he thinks is necessary.

In most ways, Whipple is a typical college of agriculture faculty member. He grew up on his family's 80-acre Old MacDonald-type of irrigated farm, with milk cows, chickens and row crops, in Idaho's Snake River Plain. His childhood is one reason he's at the University of Wyoming. Laramie, he says, is about as small a town as you can live in and still work at a major research university.

Despite his appreciation of his upbringing, Whipple believes it is more dangerous to limit the scale of agriculture than to ride the twin tigers of technological innovation and ever larger scales of production.

If the milk it produces is safe to drink, he says, the synthetic milk-stimulating hormone BST (bovine somatotropine) should not be barred. Whipple knows that losing farmers to efficiency makes it less likely that a town will have a hospital, or small businesses, or a high school. "And it is very painful when a farmer has to leave farming. Often, the only option is a job in the service sector with much less personal freedom and choice."

But to shield dairy farmers is worse, he says, because it creates inefficiency on farms and a perceived property right that can haunt society later. According to Whipple, if the U.S. bans BST and Mexico and Canada don't, then the U.S. will have to use tariffs to keep less expensive foreign milk and milk products out. And that sets off a dangerous political and economic dynamic.

"If in the future the U.S. tries to remove the tariffs, it will be taken as an attack on dairy farmers, who by then will be dependent on the tariffs for economic survival," he says.

America unsettled

Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer, essayist and novelist, sees the small family farm, run by liberally educated generalists, as the way to restore both the environment and the vitality of rural communities. In The Unsettling of America, he writes that sensitivity to the land can be maintained only by having a relatively large number of people on the land. Large-scale farming, Berry writes, has led to neglect of the land, to the bulldozing of natural areas, to the cutting of trees because they get in the way of equipment, to the filling in or eroding of streams, and so on.

Whipple has not read Berry, but he knows the small-farm scenario, and he believes the present system can change enough to undo the environmental damage it has created. Whipple says new technology, this time based on remote-sensing satellites sending signals to machinery controlled by computers, can provide the flexibility farmers need to micromanage their land.

Instead of broadcast spraying against bugs or uniform distribution of fertilizer, he says, the satellite-computer-sprayer or spreader hookup will allow fertilizer or herbicides to be used only where required, and in precise amounts. He argues that technology can become as sensitive to variations in the land as legions of Berry's farmers could be.

Such technology will not be cheap. So the result will be more of what we have seen for the past century: continued growth in the scale and capital intensiveness of agriculture.

Agriculture as industry

It is a trend that was started by the land-grant universities. According to Whipple, the land grants and their research and extension arms were established by Congress because it knew agriculture was different from other industries.

Agriculture, he says, cannot collect "rent," the economic surplus accruing to industries that control their production and prices. Congress knew, Whipple says, that agriculture's research and development and education would have to be funded from the outside. So it set up the land-grant universities to educate rural and other working people. And later it set up the agricultural experimental stations to do research. Finally, in 1914, it set up extension to carry the research to farmers and their families.

The system succeeded in making agriculture more like other industries. Farmers still don't control production and marketing enough to collect significant profits, but agribusinesses - the chemical and farm equipment manufacturers and fertilizer companies - do. And that surplus allows these firms to do some of the research, development and even education, through their field agents, that the colleges of agriculture and extension once did.

The industrialization of farming, Whipple says, didn't happen because farmers wanted it to happen. He says the pressure to create the land grants came from an urban elite that wanted to educate and modernize America's land-based people.

There was resistance. But the power of industrialization, specialization, research and large capital investment won the day. Together, those forces did in America's landed peasants, pushing millions of families off the land and into factories and shops.

It wasn't gentle, especially for the blacks and whites who streamed north out of the south. But it was gentler than Stalin's methods, in which millions of farmers, or kulaks, were killed and their land collectivized. And it came much sooner than in Mexico, a country just now grappling with the question of creating a larger-scale agriculture.

Campus insularity

If agriculture as a whole is now capable of doing its research and education, does that mean land-grant universities are losing their purpose? Whipple says that the land grants' traditional job of making agriculture more productive is today less important than new challenges they face. The adoption of large-scale agriculture has created huge problems: polluted groundwater; residues from pesticides and herbicides on food, soil erosion, endangered species, dried-up streams, diminishing aquifers, and more. These problems are accompanied by pressure from urbanites who want pure food produced without impact on the environment.

It is here - in the enormous gulf between urban consumers and rural producers - that Whipple believes land grants will find their most important niche. He says they must continue to keep agriculture efficient and productive while addressing society's demand for protection of land, water and the diversity of species.

To do this, he says, land grant researchers must transform themselves from disciplinary academics into scientists who reach outside their departments to solve problems. He uses his discipline - agricultural economics - as an example. Originally, it concentrated on studying the profitability of new farming methods and crops. Then it became a separate discipline and expanded into finance, marketing, rural development and the like.

But like almost all agricultural disciplines, Whipple says, agricultural economics has now turned inward, toward its core academic discipline and away from other agricultural disciplines. Faculty do scholarly work and publish the results in academic journals. More often than not, the work they publish has little relevance to what farmers face in their fields, and even less to larger societal problems.

Whipple believes he and other academics can learn to work with other disciplines to solve on-the-ground problems. Energized by the overview that 11 months as acting dean gave him, he returned to his ag-econ department to initiate a long-range planning effort.

He warns against expecting quick change. Tenure, which protects professors' jobs, gives faculty a lot of autonomy. Some describe academe as 12th-century anarchy: an expensive, ineffective anomaly in today's turn-on-a-dime world. Critics of academe often start by calling for the abolition of tenure, and the substitution of some other system, which is never specified, to safeguard academic freedom.

Whipple prefers to work within the present structure, pushing on the system but not overturning it. Faculty, he says, are willing to take incredible creative risks, undertaking research that may lead nowhere after years of work in labs or the library. The security of tenure encourages these kinds of risks, Whipple believes.

Businesses, Whipple says, can fire legions of employees at will, or motivate them by saying the firm is in trouble. But such tactics, he says, are counterproductive in universities.

"Academics are creative people. The threat of a funding loss most often paralyzes them."

The answer, he believes, lies in gradual change within a collegial atmosphere. If the land-grant university faculties are to change, they will change through the gathering and analysis of data, followed by what will seem to outsiders as endless discussion. This process, which Whipple has undertaken in his department in the form of long-range planning, aims at the creation of consensus on what the new direction should be and by what norms the professors should be evaluated.

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