The U of M

Seeing as how I spent part of my Monday post tearing into a Washington Post op-ed piece that vilified small college faculties for the few hours they put into their job, then followed it on Tuesday by spotlighting a couple of articles about the value of the liberal arts, today I’d like to praise another model of higher education: the American land-grant university, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

Specifically, I’ll single out the school not far from our house that is ranked among the top 50 universities in the world, employs my uncle, educated my father and a few other notable alumni, and welcomed me a week ago for an eye-opening visit: the University of Minnesota.

I actually wrote an ode to the U and similar land-grant institutions back in late December. But because it was buried in the middle of an odd post on giving gifts for the sixth day of Christmas, I doubt many people noticed it. Let me rerun what I wrote on December 30th, then add a coda stemming from my recent visit to the U’s West Bank campus in Minneapolis.

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The Washington Post‘s recent profile found even a “public Ivy” like Cal-Berkeley reduced to “perpetual austerity,” with its faculty (whose ranks include nine Nobel laureates) forced to take furloughs and its students struggling to find enough open classes to graduate in five or six years. Here in flyover country, the University of Minnesota (and the MnSCU system) have had their state support steadily trickle away, with the result that tuition for in-state students has risen dramatically. According to the report of a task force on higher education funding, as late as ten years ago these schools received about two-thirds of their funding from the state; by the time the task force concluded its work in 2007, the figure was close to 50% and falling rapidly. The terms of the deal struck to end last summer’s state government shutdown led to a further cut of 10% below what was allocated in the previous biennium.

Restoring funding (or simply stopping the decline) would be a gift to students, faculty, and staff at such institutions, of course, but also to lots of other people in their communities. While the U of M is one of Bethel’s main competitors for students, I’m happy to acknowledge the hugely important role it and other schools like it play in their communities and beyond. I’m one of the 75-80% of Bethel faculty (depending how you count Canadian and European universities) who received at least one degree from a state university, with our sciences and professional divisions especially benefiting from the training provided by such institutions. And as the Post article put it, such universities are “engines of upward social mobility,” making world-class education available to those unable to afford the ludicrous cost of private universities. Here’s how one graduate described the University of Minnesota when he attended it in the 1960s:

The University was a monument to the Jeffersonian faith in the power of learning and in the ability of all people to recognize and embrace excellence, a grand old American notion. To offer Jussi Bjoerling and Arthur Rubinstein to 18-year-old kids at prices they can afford is an astonishment. Utterly. To witness such grandeur can change a person’s life. But that was the spirit of the Morrill Act of 1862 that granted to the states a tract of land in proportion to their population for the endowment of a state university to teach the classic curriculum as well as courses relating to agriculture and industry, open to qualified students regardless of financial means.

…American universities have seen plenty of radicals and revolutionaries come and go over the years, and all of them put together were not nearly so revolutionary as a land-grant university itself on an ordinary weekday. To give people with little money a chance to get the best education there is—that is a true revolution. (Garrison Keillor, Homegrown Democrat, pp. 87-88, 94)

By his recollection, Keillor paid $71 a quarter for this opportunity. And while it helped make him a Democrat, there was bipartisan support for this kind of investment in a land-grant institution — the land having originally been granted under the greatest Republican president in American history (according to the terms of an act of Congress named after one of the GOP’s founders), after all.

Just a few years after Keillor, my father attended the University of Minnesota and graduated — first with a bachelor’s degree and then from its medical school — without owing a dime of student loans, in no small part because state support of the post-WWII ‘U’ was so strong that tuition (even for med school) remained well within reach of the middle class and beyond. The return on taxpayer investment was substantial: Dad helped found a pediatric intensive care unit in St. Paul, trained hundreds of other doctors as a member of the U’s faculty, and helped make the Twin Cities one of the world’s leading centers for medical research.

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All this came back to me last Thursday, in the middle of a visit with Tim Johnson, a fellow blogger and Covenanter who happens to be the U’s Curator of Special Collections and Rare Books. I came mostly to see the U’s Sherlock Holmes collection, the world’s largest such collection, of which Tim was named E.W. McDiarmid Curator not long ago. (Tim and the collection he spends about half his professional time curating were profiled in the Chronicle for Higher Education last year.) Tim took me down into the “caverns” below Andersen Library to show me the room where the bulk of the collection resides. On top of Sherlock Holmes books new and old (including four of the thirty-one known copies of the original printing of the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet) in dozens of languages, there are pages from the original manuscript of the most famous Holmes novel (The Hound of the Baskervilles), original illustrations by Frederic Dorr Steele, original recordings of Sherlock Holmes radio shows, an Arthur Conan Doyle collection that goes beyond Holmes, the papers and correspondence of famous Sherlockian scholars like Vincent Starrett, board games, dolls, and even a couple of revolvers.

Elmer Andersen Library
Elmer Andersen Library, University of Minnesota - Creative Commons (AlexiusHoratius)

But then Tim kept going deeper into the caverns, which became larger and larger. (They were hollowed out under the Andersen library, right on the bank of the Mississippi River.) And the effect became more and more like the famous last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Except that I always had the clear sense that Tim and his staff knew exactly where to find anything: the collected books of former Minnesota governor Elmer Andersen (after whom the library is named), World War I pamphlets, the records of Twin Cities theatres, a substantial GLBTQ history section, the archives of by the U’s Immigration History Research Center, and so much more. Plus there was the loading dock for books being sent off to be digitized by Google, the ramp dispatching inter-library loan requests off to other libraries around the state and country, and the empty stacks made available by the U for any other library in Minnesota to use for short- or long-term storage.

Between descending into this repository of knowledge, making mental plans to attend the next triennial Sherlock Holmes research conference hosted by Tim and his colleagues (here’s the 2010 program), listening to him talk about his role in teaching and mentoring future librarians and archivists, and tagging along as he took a group of 7th grade English students on a tour that ended at a recreated 221B Baker Street apartment set up in a conference room on the 4th floor of Wilson Library, I again appreciated how a land-grant university can play such a vital role as a center of learning, research, preservation, and community development.


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