Land-grant universities celebrating 150 years

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Land-grant universities across the nation are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the 1862 Morrill Act that established the U.S. system of these public supported universities.

Vermont Rep. Justin Smith Morrill is the namesake of the landmark legislation. The act was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln. It gave states public land to establish and/or support colleges and universities focused on agriculture, engineering and military arts and outlined future tax funding.

Historians credit the law with providing educational opportunities to “ordinary people” in the late-19th century and providing a practical use education much more than a classical liberal arts education. Public support was and continues to be key to expanding opportunities for the middle class and low income students, but there is no doubt that the land-grant universities have paid back to the nation’s success in many more ways than Morrill or Lincoln could have ever imagined.

Iowa State University, which was established in 1858 and four years before the Morrill Act was passed, it was the first in the country to take advantage of the act's provisions. Kansas State University, established in 1863, was the first land-grant university to be created under the act, according to the historical records.

Within eight years of the passage of the Morrill Act, 37 states had or were in the process of establishing the new type of college for which the act was focused. The United States went from having four engineering schools in 1860 to 85 by 1885, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities records show.

“Charles P. Pierce, a political columnist for Esquire magazine, wrote recently that Americans ought to celebrate the anniversary of the Morrill Act as enthusiastically as they do the anniversary of the U.S. Civil War,” reported Leslie Reed, a writer for the Omaha World-Hearld newspaper and Omaha.com. And the reason, as Reed pulled from what Pierce wrote is because it was “a commitment that Americans made to each other, and to their children and to their children's children.”

The celebrations are happening at a time when the public support of land-grant universities is under attack. Most of the celebrations are stressing the success of the universities in every decade of the 150 years since the Morrill Act. The celebrations are also emphasizing the potential for these universities’ graduates, the curriculums and sponsored research to lead the way into the future.   

A prime example of celebration activities is the University of Nebraska at Lincoln’s discussion by four former Secretary of Agricultures about the land-grant institution system in producing sufficient food and energy for a growing world population. The Friday evening event is titled “The Land-Grant Mission of 2012—Transforming Agriculture for the 2050 World.”


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