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Morrill Act Event Celebrates the Past and Looks to the Future

Posted by | June 27, 2012

Yesterday, I attended a convocation in Washington D.C. sponsored by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) celebrating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Morrill Act into law. The Morrill Act is legislation that created a national system of colleges specifically geared to provide science and technological education to the people. Of course, this act did more than establish the land-grant system: it served as the foundation for the democratization of higher education in America.

Technically, the true anniversary of the signing of the Morrill Act is coming up on July 2nd. The Morrill Act gave every state in the Union federal land and funds to create “land-grant” colleges. The act stipulated that those colleges would emphasize teaching and research in the practical arts: agriculture, science and engineering. It also required them to be accessible to the public. That concept alone was revolutionary given that, up to that point, higher education had focused more on the liberal arts and accessibility was limited primarily to the upper class.

Consider the context of President Lincoln’s decision to take that bold step. It was July 1862. Civil war had raged within our country’s borders for nearly 18 months. Thousands had been killed, even more wounded. Homes, crops and businesses had been destroyed. Commerce, in country and out, had been disrupted. We were a nation divided and there was no end in sight to the conflict. Even during these desperate times, our leaders looked to education as the path out of despair.

The Morrill Act represented a glimmer of hope at one of the darkest times in our history, the hope that expanding access to higher education in areas most applicable to solving the issues of the day would lead to peace and prosperity for all Americans.

Although President Lincoln was assassinated before he saw that hope realized, the robust and resilient network of land-grant colleges and universities today is testimony to his vision. Land-grant institutions such as Washington State University continue to provide quality, accessible education to students of all walks of life at campuses distributed throughout the state. Our scientists continue to generate new knowledge and research in agriculture, engineering, and science — including in alternative energy, clean technology, and global health. Our Extension educators — located in each of Washington’s 39 counties — continue to test, apply, and deliver that knowledge into the hands of those who need it most.

Providing the general public with access to the latest scientific knowledge and education has helped to shape our nation. The Morrill Act empowered the American people with the tools and technological advances they needed to prosper 150 years ago, and continues to do so today. We at Washington State University are very proud of our land-grant roots and honored to serve our state, nation and world.

For me personally, the land-grant tradition has served as a life-long motivation. I am a product of the land-grant system. As a youth, our farm was served by county extension; I received all of my degrees from land-grant institutions; and I have worked exclusively at land-grant universities (Oklahoma State University, Kansas State University, and Washington State University).

Advancing this legacy of service to agriculture and rural America and providing access to higher education for those who might otherwise not be served are personal driving forces. These values were reinforced throughout the program at the Convocation and made me proud of what we have accomplished and motivated to have even greater impact.

Videos from the convocation will be  available on the APLU web site.