University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Our Land-Grant Mission for the Twenty-First Century

Tom Sullivan
Photograph by Sally McCay


Our Land-Grant Mission for the Twenty-First Century

As Vermont’s premier research institution and land-grant university, our public responsibilities are clear: to advance the economic and social well-being of our nation and our state by discovering new knowledge, bringing innovations into the world that advance the quality of life for all, and educating critical thinkers for leadership roles. Our land-grant mission to cultivate “thinkers and doers,” in Vermont Senator Justin Morrill’s words, develops the intellectual rigor and applied understanding that sustain communities, economies, and ecological well-being. 

When Senator Morrill proposed the land-grant bill to Congress in 1857, his overarching intention was to create opportunities for advancing knowledge in the primary economic arenas of the day by opening the halls of higher learning to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds and moving scientific discoveries and new knowledge to the broader public. With agriculture being the predominant industry at the time, and with engineering and technology growing rapidly, the early land-grant curricula focused on the science and “mechanical arts” related to farming and innovation as the means of sustaining communities and economic development. 

A century and a half later, in the context of vastly more complex social systems and needs, our mission calls us to put our teaching, research, and development energies into improving the health of the commons and advancing ideas and projects that build and sustain vibrant economies and communities.

The compelling challenges of our day—improving air and water quality, developing renewable energies, advancing health care and food security, maintaining the well-being of our ecosystems—these challenges give focus to our research here at UVM. The complex and interwoven nature of these issues invites scholars and students to interact across disciplines, developing rich perspectives and out-of-the-box thinking about solutions. This sharing of information, contemplation, and discovery is the undergirding of our interdisciplinary curriculum at the University. 

But creating new potentials for sustaining our ecology, economies, and communities is only one-half of the land-grant mission—new possibilities don’t advance society if the information stays within the University. Implementing potential solutions is the spark that gives life to our land-grant purpose—like the successful Extension agencies that for more than 100 years have exported new applied research and ideas to communities across the nation daily.

UVM has a long history of public engagement based on cutting-edge research at the University. Consider, for instance, the discovery of acid rain’s deleterious effects on Green Mountain forests and the public advocacy spearheaded by the late UVM scientist Hub Vogelmann that led to national legislation controlling pollutants that cause acid rain. 

Professor Vogelmann, a renowned conservationist, along with the UVM Botany Department engaged in a long-term study of high-elevation ecosystems in the Green Mountains. When the data helped determine without a doubt that acid and heavy metals in rain were killing trees and creating stressing effects on the Green Mountain forests, Professor Vogelmann published his research in prestigious journals and shared his findings with policy makers and the public. 

One of the most comprehensive interdisciplinary and regional projects currently under way at the University focuses on the dynamic processes affecting the Lake Champlain Basin, to build resilience in the face of our changing climate. Vermont EPSCoR (Experiemental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), a $3 million per year program directed by UVM Distinguished Professor of Biology Judith Van Houten and supported by the National Science Foundation, pairs scientists and researchers at UVM with colleagues at other Vermont colleges and with state agencies and organizations throughout Vermont and New York. 

Vermont EPSCoR teams continually gather and analyze data focused on understanding the biological, chemical, physical, and geological process in the Lake Champlain Basin in the wake of climate shifts. A cutting-edge, overarching modeling platform that will inform policy and land-use decisions throughout a variety of scenarios is under development, with the purpose of ensuring that the Lake Champlain Basin remains healthy into the future. This collaboration with partners across the region is our mission in action, advancing the public good through applied interagency and citizen-involved research, discovery, and action. 

Moving from discovery to the formulation of a big idea is the exciting edge where research becomes real, where potential solutions become implemented. Dynamic partnerships across the University are translating ideas that form intellectual property into commercial possibilities for advancing the public good. 

Exciting recent examples include a digital printer that translates conventional graphics to raised-line versions for the blind; a “priming medium” for enhancing the success of cardiac stem cell grafts; and a tiny vibration energy scavenging device that converts mechanical energy into electricity to power wireless sensors of all kinds. Resources and programs across the University support these endeavors: for example, the UVM Fab Lab makes rapid-prototyping tools available to students and faculty; SPARK-VT sponsors University-wide pitch sessions with experts and awards seed grants for moving innovations to next-stage development; and the UVM Office of Technology Commercialization provides programs and services that facilitate the translation of discoveries into accessible technologies, products, and services. 

Finally, in supporting the development of a twenty-first century economy, the University is actively engaged in creating an innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem with the city of Burlington, launching the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies business incubator, promoting BTV Ignite to leverage Burlington’s powerful gigabit infrastructure to accelerate economic growth in the region, and supporting Burlington’s “maker space,” Generator. (Read more about these efforts.) 

The great needs of our time, from ensuring the health of our commons to creating a robust and sustainable twenty-first century economy, call for innovation, imagination, and collaboration. As Vermont’s land-grant university, it is both our responsibility and our imperative to foster these partnerships across the nation, the state, our city, and the University that will translate promising ideas into next-generation potentials for advancing the public good.

—Tom Sullivan


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