Let's reimagine Texas' land-grant universities

Photo by Stuart Seeger

Texas A&M has a unique and storied history among Texas’ universities: It was established to train young minds to support what was then a largely agrarian state. It was a clear mission — but it’s one that must be reimagined to keep up with our state’s rapidly changing economy and demography.

Texas A&M’s beginnings were humble and rooted in the Morrill Act, which was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. This act established land-grant institutions, which offered the opportunity for upward mobility to farmers and the working class, emphasizing education in agriculture, mechanics, military tactics and classical studies. Even in a time of civil war and national division, there was hope for the future; education was the key. 

Texas A&M’s land-grant heritage made it possible for me, the son of an oil field worker and school teacher from a small farming town, to attend a world-class university. There, I had the resources to cultivate my passion for public service, which led to my election as a state legislator, railroad commissioner and comptroller.

Much has changed since 1972, when I served 14,000 students as the student body president at Texas A&M. Today, Texas A&M is the largest university in the Lone Star State, and we are also one of the largest systems of higher education in the nation, educating more than 131,000 students through a statewide network of 11 universities, seven state agencies, two service units and a comprehensive health science center. We are sharing innovation and knowledge, providing for greater opportunity and serving our fellow men and women; these are the fundamental elements of the Texas A&M brand.

But as our reputation shifts, the land-grant mission we started with must be redefined.

Let’s start with agriculture. Even as our economy becomes increasingly complex and diverse, we must remain committed to agricultural advancement through technology. The industry is being transformed into one dominated by mechanized farming performed by large conglomerates, an area in which A&M has contributed. The term "agricultural engineering" did not exist years ago because these were two distinct areas of study. Today, our AgriLife research agency is the largest in the United States, and the Borlaug Institute continues to reach a worldwide audience through innovative programs in wheat production pioneered by Dr. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Prize winner.

Engineering must respond in the same manner, and we have evolved to include over a dozen areas of specialization. Today, I walk into our labs and see engineers from the Dwight Look College of Engineering comparing notes with doctors from the College of Medicine and College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in a quest to solve the world’s most challenging health issues. We have produced more than 100,000 engineering graduates since A&M opened its doors. Now our new 25 by 25 program is focused on breaking down the barriers to entry by expanding access to underserved audiences. We must also continue to save lives through innovations such as patented highway safety devices and operations such as the Texas Task Force 1, a 500-person urban search and rescue team.

But our mission now covers more than agriculture and engineering. Even though you'll still hear us yell “farmers fight” when we play an SEC opponent, we are growing our new law school in Fort Worth and expanding our Health Science Center to broaden our network of medical schools around the state. We’re pursuing more public-private partnerships, like our $285.6 million award to help develop mass vaccination capabilities in the event of an outbreak of a deadly flu virus or biological attack on our country. We’re responding to our state’s educational needs by producing more teachers in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) than any other school in Texas.

Finally, land-grant universities must continue to be stewards of the public trust and the public treasury. At Texas A&M, we’re reshaping the resource paradigm through game-changing partnerships with worldwide leaders like IBM in high-performance computing and Google in streamlined research development. We must stress efficiency and look to outsourcing when appropriate to redirect funding to benefit the core mission of education. And, true to our roots, we must continue to provide the best possible value to our students by making education more accessible through both affordable tuition rates and guaranteed tuition programs.

As a system, we now touch almost as many people in Texas, the nation and the world as were living in the United States during Lincoln’s time. Then and now, our students are our greatest source of pride. While we still enjoy celebrating the traditions rooted in our rich past (and even being accused of planting maroon bluebonnets in Austin), the fact is that the “A” and the “M” in our name are only symbolic links to our history. Today, with the largest research university in Texas and the Southwest, we are much more. 

John Sharp

Chancellor of the Texas A&M University System