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Faculty Research Spotlight

Dr. Nathan M. Sorber


Assistant Professor
Higher Education Administration
Department of Curriculum & Instruction/Literacy Studies

Thanks to the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, higher education became accessible for more Americans and accelerated education in science and technology. Ultimately, it expanded higher education in several other fields, but university access remained allusive for those with limited financial means and college preparation.

Perhaps lesser-known, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 created Cooperative Extension, which paired with the Morrill Land-Grant Acts to initiate outreach efforts aimed at disseminating knowledge to communities in agriculture, economics, business, government and more. Adult education in these fields became more common, and land-grant universities began shifting towards inclusivity. Today, there is a land-grant institution and extension operation in every state, with community outreach making up a large part of these universities’ missions.

Nathan Sorber, an assistant professor in higher education administration in the CEHSDepartment of Curriculum & Instruction/Literacy Studies, was an advocate for the land-grant mission long before coming to West Virginia University, which is responsible for educational outreach and community service in many parts of the Mountain State.

At Pennsylvania State University, Sorber’s doctoral studies focused on the impact of the rise of American capitalism on small farmers and rural communities, which inevitably led to studying land-grant colleges. He found that the land-grant mission is crucial to providing the resources necessary to solve economic and social problems.

“By a twist of fate, the land-grant colleges came to encompass two divergent areas- the undergraduate learning and research mission of universities, and the outreach and service mission often housed in extension services.”

However, today the land-grant mission has been threatened by cuts in education spending. As states appropriate less to public education, outreach efforts become more difficult to achieve. In a state like West Virginia, the benefits of a higher education institution may not be immediately obvious to those who don’t associate themselves with the university, creating a cycle of dwindling support for land-grant institutions and even further cuts to funding.

“Land-grant colleges still feel the tension between serving their campus clientele and advancing disciplinary knowledge, while trying to meet the needs of the people and help solve the practical problems of rural places.”

Since beginning his career at the College of Education and Human Services in the fall of 2012, Sorber has raised awareness for the importance of the university’s outreach efforts. He has been a strong supporter of West Virginia University’s 2020 Strategic Plan for the Future, which aims to increase outreach efforts in the state, as well as on a national and global scale. The CEHS has initiated several outreach programs in STEM, learning, special education, civic education and more. Sorber believes that such initiatives are necessary to sustain support for land-grant institutions around the country.

“We need to counter the message that a college education is a private benefit which should be primarily supported by tuition (and debt). We need a rigorous commitment to outreach that shows people that the benefits of higher education are not only accrued to those in the classroom, but indeed the land-grant college or extension office can directly improve the lives of your family and community.”

Sorber has been active in generating conversation on the topic of the land-grant mission. He published his first book, “The Land-Grant Colleges and the Reshaping of American Higher Education”, one year ago and addressed the WVU Board of Governors on the importance of the university’s land-grant mission during their regional meeting last September.

On September 24, Sorber will chair a national symposium to mark the 100th Anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act. WVU President Gordon Gee will deliver an address on university engagement and cooperative extension and the event will feature panels of historical and contemporary scholars of higher education, extension, agriculture, and related areas discuss the legacy, present condition, and future directions of cooperative extension, as well as the engagement mission of public higher education.

“Here at WVU, we wrestle with how to utilize our scarce resources to serve our first two strategic goals of advancing undergraduate learning and faculty research with our fifth strategic goal of serving the people of West Virginia. To this day, the land-grant college mission is debated regularly in statehouses and on campuses, as we try to balance our commitments to the research university ideal of scholarship and academic excellence with the goals of access and outreach.”

The need to highlight the importance of extension services is evident. Sorber points to the land-grant mission’s role in innovation in agriculture, important in many rural areas. When agriculture became corporatized, though, corporate-owned farms displaced many rural families. Institutions taking part in community outreach are now tasked with the responsibility of assisting rural communities to redevelop a sustainable economic plan that often does not include farming- just one example, Sorber says, of why land-grant institutions like West Virginia University will need to continue strengthening outreach efforts.

“The same challenges to rural places will come to the developing world over the next thirty years, as agricultural research in biotechnology and genetics will assist in modernizing agricultural production to feed a population set to double by 2050. This will lead to even further corporatization of the agricultural industry in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and small farmers will need education, retraining, and community development outreach to avoid economic and social ruin.”

Moving forward, Sorber will continue to write and present his research to raise awareness about the land-grant mission as a tool to solve many social problems on a domestic and international scale. The Smith-Lever Symposium in September is one of several ways to bring scholars together to consider new ways of structuring higher education to better serve the communities of West Virginia and beyond.

He is currently in the process of publishing his latest text, “The Morrill Act in Yankeedom”, which explores the beginnings of the land-grant mission in the Northeastern United States, for the Cornell University Press.