Land-grant Tradition Lives on in Faculty Award

Robert & Hazel Spitze

Robert & Hazel Spitze in the 1940s

The land-grant university system, which allows ordinary people to follow their dreams, is vital to democracy, says Robert Spitze (’54 PhD ALS), a product of four land-grant institutions including the University of Wisconsin-Madison. With the Robert G.F. and Hazel T. Spitze Land Grant Faculty Award for Excellence in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), he hopes to ensure the land-grant tradition will not be forgotten.

“I learned what a land-grant college was through my economics courses,” said Spitze, a professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Illinois-Urbana who visited Madison for the CALS Faculty/Staff Awards Presentation. “Why was it that we had visionary people in the midst of the Civil War who were trying to form a more perfect union? Somebody said we need education out there in the boondocks, way out in the Western area. Why did somebody worry about that?”

Visionaries such as Jonathan Baldwin Turner, a product of an Eastern Ivy League education, were fascinated by the idea of universities in the cornfield, Spitze said. Turner championed – and Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas promised in their famous debates – the idea of establishing a general university in every state to educate the masses.

The land-grant notion has permeated so much the history of our country, I don’t think we’d be the democracy we’ve been if we had not incorporated that.

Robert Spitze

“The land-grant notion has permeated so much the history of our country,” Spitze said. “I don’t think we’d be the democracy we’ve been if we had not incorporated that.” The Morrill Act in 1862 provided federally controlled land to the states to sell or develop for colleges that would teach agriculture, domestic science and industrial arts.

Stephen Ventura (MS ‘83 and PhD ’89 IES), professor and former chair of Soil Science and director of the Nelson Institute’s Land Tenure Center, received the Spitze award this year. He was among 15 faculty and academic staff members who were honored in the April 27 CALS staff and faculty awards ceremony.

“I think of myself as very lucky to be selected for the award and really lucky to have a job I love to do that … allows me to make a contribution in the way the land-grant university intended,” Ventura said. The Land Tenure Center is directly involved in the land-grant idea of building capacity to help people help themselves, he said.

The center promotes equitable and sustainable land stewardship, especially in countries where biodiversity or local livelihoods are at risk. The center supports interdisciplinary research to identify solutions and guide policy reform in countries such as Kenya, where the livelihoods of 70 percent to 85 percent of the people depend on agriculture.

“With dwindling state support, having recognition like this can be significant,” Ventura said of the award.

While Spitze maintains an academic interest in land-grant universities, he said he believes in the system because it gave him and his late wife, Hazel, a chance for education. “We would never have gone to a private university,” he said. “There were no public universities at that time, besides the land grant.”

Hazel’s mother was so committed to education that she insisted on moving the family in the depths of the Depression across Arkansas to Fayetteville. According to the family story, she said, “I want my kids to be educated.  Unless I move to a college town, we can’t educate them.” Hazel won a scholarship and earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Arkansas, completed a master’s degree in home economics at UW-Madison and earned a doctorate from the University of Tennessee, another land-grant institution. She became a professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois-Urbana, also a land-grant university.

Spitze grew up on a struggling farm, and his high school ag teacher talked him into applying to the University of Arkansas and for a Sears and Roebuck scholarship. He finished his undergraduate work at Arkansas and earned a doctorate in agricultural economics at the UW-Madison, before spending the majority of career an agricultural economics professor at the University of Illinois-Urbana. He also taught at the University of Tennessee.

“Four land-grant universities enriched our lives,” Spitze said. “We were indebted to the land-grant system. We were indebted to the people.” Because they didn’t want to be partial to any of the institutions, the Spitzes have set up endowments to support students and professors in Madison, Urbana, Knoxville and Fayetteville.