Climate extension could unlock the higher education sector as a catalyst of societal climate action
These remarks were presented at the White House Summit on Campus- and Community-Scale Climate Change Solutions on March 8, 2023. (As prepared)
The land-grant model rests on three pillars that came together over the half-century between 1862 and 1914.
- Accessible public higher education, provided by colleges of agriculture and engineering established in every state.
- Fundamental and applied agriculture-related research, conducted and disseminated through a network of state agricultural experiment stations.
- Cooperative extension, a Federal/state/county/university partnership that has placed agents in almost every county in the country with the mission of what the 1914 Smith-Lever Act calls the ‘diffusion and application’ of ‘useful and practical information’ related to ‘agriculture and home economics’.
These pillars parallel the tripartite mission of instruction, research, and service shared by almost all colleges and universities. A distinctive aspect of the land-grant model is the recognition, as noted in a 1930 report, that a core part of that service mission is to: bring people together for social intercourse, to study, to solve community problems, and to foster better relations towards a common endeavor.
Higher education institutions are particularly well-suited to this convening role because we are inherently networked, scale-spanning institutions.
- We have deep roots in our communities, while also being connected to global networks of peer institutions and researchers;
- We work to understand and solve problems today, while also training the people who will work to solve the world’s problems for the next half century.
And this model of bringing people together in our communities, linked to global knowledge networks, with one eye the present and one on the next generation – that is exactly what is needed to support communities, government, and the private sector in meeting the challenges of the climate crisis.
We’ve been moving in this direction at Rutgers, drawing upon both cooperative extension and the broader University. For example, over the last decade, we’ve convened an alliance of governments, communities, and businesses to understand and search for solutions to the state’s climate challenges. We’ve helped deploy nature-based solutions for coastal resilience. More recently, with state support, we set up the Climate Change Resource Center to leverage the expertise of the state’s entire higher ed sector to help tackle challenges like developing climate-smart municipal plans and more equitable state buyout strategies.
The genius of the land-grant model is that it recognizes that convening people to understand and solve problems is both a core university mission and a skilled activity that requires human capacity. It can’t be done adequately by moonlighting research and teaching faculty (like me) alone – you need a faculty of extension specialists and agents for whom convening people to link societal needs to university research and education is a primary job.
That is, frankly, a missing link in realizing higher ed’s potential as a catalyst of societal climate action.
Yes, quite a few universities now have a few climate translators who develop trusted relationships with partners and help bring people together to connect societal needs and university expertise.
But what’s missing is both scale and stability. The number of climate translators does not meet the demand, and relationships that take many years to build can easily disappear if project funding dries up, or even if a critical individual decides to retire.
Climate change is a decades and centuries long problem – relying centrally on a handful of people who are sometimes paid month to month is not a resilient solution for catalyzing climate action. This fragility creates costly inefficiency.
Contrast that with the land-grant model, which provides capacity funding for extension and use-inspired research, allowing faculty to develop decades-long relationships of trust. Because that funding is there, land-grant universities align their incentive structures to support research that directly helps solve real-world problems.
I believe that, with a land-grant-style and land-grant-scale investment in climate extension, we could really unlock the role of higher education as a catalyst of societal climate action.