Posted: December 21, 2016

The names of some agricultural colleges have changed over the years to reflect who they are and those they serve. Should ours?


Since the establishment of land-grant colleges after the signing of the Morrill Act by President Lincoln in 1862, the concept of an agricultural college has continued to evolve. The initial focus of land-grant institutions was on the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science, and engineering. Parallel to Penn State becoming the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania in 1863 (founded as the Farmers' High School, which was actually a college, in 1855), most of the land grants have grown from state colleges (in 1874 for Penn State) to major universities, of which agriculture remains a key element.

The mission of the land grants was expanded by the Hatch Act of 1887 to include research and outreach. The outreach mission was then dramatically expanded by the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which created the Cooperative Extension System to bring the results of research to the people, especially in rural areas.

But the evolution in functions of land-grant colleges didn't stop with these laws. In response to public needs, agricultural colleges have increasingly addressed a whole range of challenges, including sustainable energy, medical research (such as for mosquito-borne diseases), landscape management, and devastating invasive species affecting both agricultural and natural ecosystems (with examples in this and other recent issues of Penn State Ag Science). The subject areas covered in our departments include economics, rural sociology, agricultural education, agricultural and biological engineering, forestry, and ecosystem science and management, as well as entomology; plant pathology; and veterinary, biomedical, food, animal, and plant sciences (including turfgrass; fruit, ornamental, and vegetable horticulture; and field crops).

In part, due to their geographic spread and social networks (such as in every county for Penn State), extension services often have been called upon to address a wide range of non-agricultural rural problems, many of which are also urban problems. Consequently, for many challenges, such as substance abuse, obesity, diabetes, food safety, and childcare training, extension is often one of the most widely available sources of information in many counties.

The names of agricultural colleges have changed over time to reflect changes in mission, staff disciplinary strengths, and at least in some cases, to be honest, to improve their marketing for student recruitment.

Adjusting names for marketing is an international practice. The University of British Columbia's agricultural college, for example, changed its name to "Land and Food Systems" and enjoyed dramatically increased enrollments. Being sensitive to the interests and perceptions of teenaged college applicants is smart. Public perceptions of agriculture and forestry don't accurately represent the realities of modern practices and career prospects, including that agriculture is among the top five college majors, ranking with engineering, computer science, and business in predicted career earnings. We can change those perceptions most effectively once the students come to our classes.

Colleges across the country have recognized the service, economic, and political importance of titles. Among the top-ranked dozen and a half of ag colleges in the United States, the names are, with few exceptions, variations of "Agriculture and Life Sciences," "Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences," "Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences," and "Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences."

Not only do these names reflect the research, teaching, and extension undertaken by these colleges--and thus the expertise of the staff they include--the names telegraph to internal and external audiences, including to those that control funding, as well as the constituencies that are served by the college. "Life Sciences," "Environmental," and "Human and Natural Resources" all demonstrate a commitment to society much larger and more diverse than traditional agriculture; "Agricultural" asserts that the traditional core business is still a priority.

What's in a name then? For agricultural colleges, it brands who we are to those we serve, including our students and those who influence our funding. An ideal name is inclusive in recognizing the disciplinary diversity of our staff, and thereby affects our ability to recruit new stars. We're having a conversation about this, and I invite you to send me your comments

--Rick Roush, Dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences