University Park, PA -- Anticipating the sesquicentennial of the historic Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862 that ushered in a new era of education for the country, Penn State will host a scholarly conference on "The Legacy and the Promise: 150 Years of Land-Grant Universities," June 22-24, 2011, on the University Park campus.
"In addition to scholars presenting papers on aspects of the history of the land-grant college movement, we are equally interested in scholars, administrators and leaders who can address issues related to what the future may hold for land-grant universities," said Roger L. Geiger, distinguished professor of higher education at Penn State and co-chair of the conference with Roger L. Williams, executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association and affiliate associate professor of higher education.
Interested presenters are invited to submit proposals for papers dealing with either the history of land-grant universities or their contemporary challenges. Proposals should go to Geiger at email@example.com. Publication of selected papers is anticipated for the 2012 issue of Perspectives on the History of Higher Education, which Geiger edits.
The conference is being supported by a number of Penn State entities: The Office of the Provost, the Penn State Alumni Association, the Center for the Study of Higher Education, the Higher Education Program, the College of Education, the College of Agricultural Sciences, and Penn State Outreach.
The Land-Grant College Act, introduced by Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont, became law on July 2, 1862, with the signature of President Abraham Lincoln. It sought to promote collegiate education in the practical fields of agriculture and the mechanic arts (engineering) and to place them in institutions of equal standing with those teaching the liberal arts. It also invested public resources -- in this case federal land -- to extend college access to the "industrial classes," thus providing educational opportunity to a wider segment of the population, mobilizing public support for higher education and contributing to national economic growth.
"Today, the land-grant colleges have become some of the largest and most respected universities in the world, but the land-grant mission is itself in search of redefinition," Geiger said. "The value of higher education as a public good, which inspired the original Morrill Act, is now being challenged. Public support for state colleges and universities is on the wane, along with the consensus on public responsibility for higher education. The role of land-grant institutions in access to higher education has become more complex and calls for further interpretation.
"Relationships with the 'practical arts' have grown enormously, and now encompass varying facets of research, commercialization, and economic development," Geiger added. "In addition, these universities have assumed responsibilities for service and outreach with few apparent limits."
The importance of the land-grant college movement to the shaping of American higher education was put in perspective nearly 50 years ago by the late Clark Kerr, president of the University of California and chairman of the Carnegie Commission and the Carnegie Council on Higher Education.
"Two great impacts, beyond all other forces, have molded the modern American university system and made it distinctive," Kerr wrote. "The first was the land-grant movement … This act set the tone for the development of American universities, both public and private, for most of the ensuing hundred years…The second great impact on the universities began with federal support of scientific research during World War II."
The Penn State conference will seek to extend the conversation, focusing on the historical development of land-grant colleges and the prospect for their collective future in the life of the nation.