Elizabeth Cantwell: My vision for a land-grant university in the 21st century

Utah State University’s new president aims to empower all Utahns to lead successful lives of involvement, innovation and impact.

As I begin my tenure as the 17th president of Utah State University, I would like to discuss one of the strongest attractors for me to this role – that USU is incredibly well positioned to bring meaning and value as a modern land-grant university. When USU was established 135 years ago, the Morrill Act identified the land-grant mission as educating the children of the working classes and not just the elite.

Then, economic development demanded a workforce with an agricultural and technical education, and the land-grant was created to meet the needs of the American Industrial Revolution. Today, Utah State University must leverage its vast expertise to drive innovation, nurture strong partnerships, and develop ethical leaders and a skilled workforce to meet the challenges of the modern digital era.

From my perspective, the land-grant mission for the 21st century includes the following:

Embracing the entrepreneurial spirit

Embracing the spirit of the Beehive State, the land-grant mission fosters a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. It encourages creative problem-solving, promotes technological advancements, and supports research that addresses the evolving needs of the state and its industries in the modern digital age. Just to name a few current examples at USU, we see national defense innovation with the Space Dynamics Lab, energy and environment innovation at the Bingham Research Center, security innovation at the Center for Anticipatory Intelligence, and enterprising approaches embodied in the Huntsman School’s Center for Entrepreneurship.

Emphasizing community engagement and collaboration

Reflecting Utah’s keen sense of community, the land-grant mission emphasizes meaningful engagement and collaboration with local, regional and statewide communities. By forging strong partnerships, the mission aims to address societal challenges, facilitate economic development and promote the well-being of all Utahns. There is so much more to do, but today, USU embodies this mission in our multifaceted Statewide Campuses, or Cooperative Extension offices, our community-focused health research in areas like Alzheimer’s and opioid addiction, and in our graduates who participated in Community-Engaged Learning Programs.

Promoting stewardship and sustainability

Building upon Utah’s commitment to environmental stewardship, the land-grant mission promotes research, student engagement and sustainable practices that address environmental challenges. It encourages the development of technologies and strategies that foster enduring economic growth, resource conservation and the protection of Utah’s iconic natural landscapes. USU’s Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water and Air is at the center of this work, providing the state of Utah with informed research-based expertise on Utah’s shared resources.

Prioritizing excellence in education and workforce development

Aligned with Utah’s dedication to quality education, the land-grant mission prioritizes accessible and high-quality education that equips students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the modern workforce. It collaborates with industries to develop curriculum that meets their evolving demands, ensuring graduates are well prepared for the job market. As a Carnegie R1 high research institution, USU performs an abundance of research, and the university has been recognized for being a leader in undergraduate research, providing opportunities for students to jump-start their careers.

Cultivating ethical leadership and social responsibility

Guided by Utah’s commitment to ethical leadership and the university’s principles of community, the land-grant mission instills values of integrity, empathy and social responsibility in its educational programs. It cultivates a sense of civic duty, encourages community service and prepares graduates to be ethical leaders who contribute to the betterment of society. USU is one of only 359 universities nationwide that holds the prestigious Carnegie Community Engagement Classification, the highest level of recognition for the integration of community engagement into classroom learning. Our students graduate as citizen scholars, ready to transform their communities for the better.

Utah State University’s land-grant mission actively reflects the state of Utah’s vision for progress and prosperity. It’s our obligation and commitment to the state to meet that vision with conviction, by providing publicly important research and engaged learning, and delivering value across Utah. Though being a land-grant university will always mean education, research and outreach, Utah State is translating this mission into a 21st century imperative, so we can empower all Utahns to lead successful lives of involvement, innovation, and impact.

Elizabeth Cantwell is president of Utah State University.