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Precipice or Crossroads?: Where America's Great Public Universities Stand and Where They Are Going Midway Through Their Second Century

reviewed by Leon Cremonini - November 22, 2013

coverTitle: Precipice or Crossroads?: Where America's Great Public Universities Stand and Where They Are Going Midway Through Their Second Century
Author(s): Daniel Mark Fogel & Elizabeth Malson-Huddle (eds.)
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 1438444923, Pages: 362, Year: 2012
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Precipice or Crossroads?: Where America’s Great Public Universities Stand and Where They Are Going Midway through Their Second Century, edited by Fogel and Malson-Huddle, takes a broad yet in-depth look at the Morrill Land-grant Act’s relevance—for yesterday, today and for the future. Through a set of independent essays, the book provides an exhaustive overview of what the Act has meant for generations of US students and scholars, how it contributed to national development and—perhaps most importantly—how its vision today transcends national boundaries to have the potential to be a “global ideal.” It is, perhaps, the latter that may be the key to averting the threats America’s great public research universities face.

At the heart of this book lies the question whether being an “affordable” public research university providing accessible higher education—the very paradigm of the Morrill Land-Grant Act—is still a realistic ambition. Are the threats of shrinking state funding, growing tuition fees and elitist institutional rankings making Morrill’s vision an unsustainable and outdated dream? “No” is the bottom-line answer this publication suggests. The challenges are not underestimated, but as a whole the book signals hope over gloom. It is clear, however, that hope can thrive only if we adapt to new realities. The key argument is that US public universities are still doing a great job in education, research and community service—equal if not exceeding their private counterparts—despite a growing resource gap as emphasized for example in Shulenburger’s chapter “Challenges to Viability and Sustainability: Public Funding, Tuition, College Costs, and Affordability.”

The book includes ten essays, plus an introduction and a foreword by the President of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, Peter McPherson. It covers the Morrill Act from different angles, which makes it an interesting and timely contribution to the debate on the societal relevance of public universities and their role in democratizing access. Starting off with a look at the history of the Land-Grant Act, this collection of essays follows a logical path. First, it zooms in on its role in improving access for traditionally underprivileged (black) students and developing studies otherwise considered “second class” yet essential for the nation’s development, such as agricultural sciences.   

The book then takes us a step further, into the present time, first with Gordon Gee’s chapter based (inter alia) on his experience as Ohio State’s president, and then with a thorough quantitative analysis of relative costs, assets and performances of public vs. private research universities. Both chapters convincingly argue that the Land-Grant’s vision of public universities as pioneers of the United States’ continued development and democratization of access are still very germane.

It is at this juncture, perhaps, that the book becomes truly interesting for those of us who wish to better understand higher education as a global phenomenon. Today’s American public universities are indeed a legacy of the Morrill Act(s), and despite shrinking resources, they continue to address admirably what, in his chapter, Gee calls “wicked problems.” These problems, he argues, do not have a “true” or “false” answer, but a “better” or “worse” solution. As such they transcend time and borders. Today, they play out in “universal” issues such as global warming, “humanities issues” (e.g., education for all) and regulatory issues (e.g., Intellectual Property Rights). Following chapters demonstrate that public universities are still doing a good job and thus they are perpetuating Morrill’s vision today.

With the catching title “From a Land-Grant to a World-Grant Ideal,” Hudzik and Simon broaden the discussion to the world. Living in a globalized world, Hudzik and Simon argue that extending the Land-Grant ideal to the world is inevitable as “higher education is being disrupted by a clientele that is global, a higher education supply system that is becoming global, and a competitive environment that requires reduced cycle time in learning and in discovery.”

The general sense this book produces is that of a skillfully collated set of essays, which build on each other. These essays range from the historical to the visionary and, together, produce a coherent and enticing story. The book is well structured, clear and logical. Given that it is a multi-authored text, the styles differ from one chapter to the other but this does not hamper its clarity or its usefulness. It definitively gives much food for thought for those interested in higher education—particularly issues related to access and how this is being affected by a whole set of policy changes, such as tuition increases and reduced funding, which are affecting virtually all the higher education systems in the world.

Although not explicitly mentioned, it would appear that the theoretical backdrop against which the Morrill Act’s contribution to improving access is evaluated (i.e., making higher education more affordable and thus enabling social mobility and the contribution to economic development that accompanies it) lies in a “functionalist” approach. Functionalists such as Parsons (1959) argue that education can empower equity of opportunity and upward social mobility for people from lower social strata who do not inherit privilege. And, by making higher education more affordable, the Morrill Act tackles the lack of economic capital (from a “Bourdieuan” perspective). Economic capital is one of the three forms of capital (economic, social and cultural), with which Bourdieu (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1970/1990) explained social inequality. From this perspective, equity in educational opportunities is related to the possession of these forms of capital. The essays go in detail on how this historic initiative has contributed to the economic and social development of the US and how it still does so today.

Overall, this book is useful, well-written and enjoyable. It should certainly be on the shelf of anyone (whether American or not) interested in access to higher education, its contribution to society, and a deeper understanding of how crucial decisions in history (in this case of the US) affect today’s higher education. Indeed, perhaps the book’s most poignant lesson is that policy choices in higher education are fundamental for the wellbeing and success of future generations—not short-term solutions to contingent budget problems.


Bourdieu, P. & Passeron, J. 1990. Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. London, New Delhi: Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks. (Original work published in 1970)

Parsons, T. (1959). The School as a Social System. Harvard Education Review, 29, 297-318.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 22, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17327, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 10:18:01 AM

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About the Author
  • Leon Cremonini
    Center for Higher Education Policy Studies
    E-mail Author
    LEON CREMONINI is a researcher at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies since 2006. He graduated in Political Science from the University of Bologna, Italy, in 2000 and has since worked both in Europe and with the RAND Corporation in the US. His interests concentrate on the internationalization of higher education, quality assessment at the institutional and program level, selection and access, and on the study of university and program rankings. In 2007-2009 Leon was a fellow of the «Global Policy Fellowship Program», launched by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (US) and designed to share ideas and experiences on equity and access policies for historically disadvantaged populations in tertiary education around the world. Leon presented papers and published on these topics and has been involved in a number of international projects concerned with the development of quality assurance and accreditation systems in several countries in Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia. In the Netherlands, Leon has collaborated with the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, contributing to the debates on «word-class universities» and selection as well as the financing of higher education.
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