Land-grant universities celebrate Morrill Act sesquicentennial

June 22, 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. – America's public universities, the backbone of advanced education and research in the United States today, will pause to observe the sesquicentennial anniversary of the passage of the Morrill Land-grant Act of 1862 on Tuesday, June 26, in Washington, D.C.

Written by Sen. Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont and signed into law on July 2, 1862, by President Abraham Lincoln, the legislation provided grants of federal lands to the states for the establishment of public universities and led to the democratization of higher education.

In 1863, the Pennsylvania legislature designated Penn State the Commonwealth's sole land-grant institution -- a distinction it still holds. Pennsylvania received 780,000 acres of land, which were sold for $439,000. The state Legislature then converted this amount to a $500,000 bond yielding 6 percent ($30,000) annually to Penn State. The bond functioned in effect as Penn State's "endowment" during those early years.

In return for this support, Penn State began a steady expansion of its academic program. It also pledged to disseminate the benefits gained through research and instruction, which today takes the form of hundreds of outreach programs that touch the lives of millions of people each year throughout Pennsylvania and across America. In this way, the Morrill Land-Grant Act in effect conferred on Penn State its three-part mission of teaching, research and public service. This mission continues to guide the University in all that it does for Pennsylvania, the nation and the world.

According to Roger Geiger, distinguished professor of education at Penn State, "Nowhere is that land-grant legacy more fully realized for the 21st century than at The Pennsylvania State University." Geiger cites two examples of how Penn State has done this: its research institutes, which have transformed the way scholarship and research is conducted at Penn State to make it more collaborative and interdisciplinary to address real world issues; and the World Campus, which offers more than 70 degree and certificate programs.

"Here at Penn State, we respond daily to pressing issues that emerge in Pennsylvania's 67 counties -- whether it's educational outreach on late blight affecting tomatoes and potatoes, or groundbreaking research on homeland security issues. Clearly, access to education and new knowledge is critical and remains fundamental for shaping our Commonwealth," said Craig Weidemann, vice president for Outreach. "Individuals of all ages seek knowledge and advice from our Cooperative Extension offices, located throughout Pennsylvania. Faculty, extension field-based educators, volunteers and community members work together to identify needs and provide educational programs and research-based information to meet those needs. That outreach is at the core of the land-grant mission of this University."

The sesquicentennial celebration of the Morrill Act coincides with the observance of 2012 as the "Year of Global Food Security," and College of Agricultural Sciences Dean Bruce McPheron said he sees the two as being interconnected. "The land-grant mission remains critical today, and now it is being broadened by global perspective," he said. "We want to think about the past 150 years and what the investment in the land-grant system has done for the United States, and then expand the land-grant university mission going forward to help address new challenges associated with a global food system." As part of this focus, the college launched a new dual-title degree program in International Agriculture and Development. The only one of its kind in the nation, the program is designed to prepare graduate students with technical and other skills necessary to develop and deliver programs to sustain a healthy planet. "This is the land-grant mission in action, to benefit society in the 21st century," McPheron said.

Nationally, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and nearly 600 public university leaders and others from government, philanthropy and business will gather on June 26 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the bill's passage during the day-long Convocation: 150 Years of the Morrill Act: Advancing the Legacy. The event will be held in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. Tickets are still available for the event.

Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and former chief executive officer of Microsoft, will deliver the keynote address. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will participate in dynamic panel discussions exploring the past, present and future of public higher education. Four students, including Meghann and Justin Morrill, the great-great-grand niece and nephew of Sen. Morrill, will provide a student perspective.

"The Morrill Act was the democratization of higher education at time when college was largely reserved for the children of the elite," said APLU President Peter McPherson. "Morrill expanded higher education and economic mobility to the sons and daughters of ordinary people. One hundred and fifty years later, public universities enroll more than 7 million students annually, undertake 60 percent of federally funded academic research, and work daily to solve local and regional problems. We have much to celebrate."

Morrill and Lincoln used grants of federal lands, one of the few resources available in a time of soaring war deficits, to provide states with the funds necessary to establish public colleges. The curriculum focused on "scientific agriculture" to help improve farm productivity, mechanical arts (engineering) as the country was rapidly industrializing, and the humanities deemed important for everyone.

"The Morrill Act is perhaps one of the more successful pieces of social legislation enacted in the United States," McPherson said. "Early on the colleges adopted a model of cutting-edge teaching, discovering of new knowledge and using knowledge to solve problems in their states. Today, the land-grant vision of educational opportunity has become a central part of all public higher education."

Currently, there are 106 land-grant universities, including at least one in every state. Subsequent legislation, the Morrill Acts of 1890 and 1994, established land-grant institutions that today are known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Tribal Colleges. The APLU membership of land-grant colleges, public research universities and state university systems stands at 218 institutions.

Convocation Program
APLU President Peter McPherson will open the festivities with brief remarks followed by Sterling Speirn, president and chief executive officer of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. University of Nebraska System President J.B. Milliken will introduce Gates.

David McWilliams, board chair of the Friends of the Justin Smith Morrill Homestead, will open the program portraying Justin Smith Morrill and giving a portion of a Morrill speech in support of the legislation.

Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, president of The World Food Prize Foundation will present the Norman E. Borlaug Medallion to APLU and the land-grant university community in recognition of the essential role land-grant institutions have played over the past 150 years. Among the specific roles: fostering the most prolific agricultural production ever recorded in human history; inspiring multiple generations to attain the highest levels of scientific research; and providing a model for emulation around the world for eliminating the scourge of hunger from the earth. Borlaug, Father of the Green Revolution, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and founder of the World Food Prize, was a graduate of a land-grant university. Accepting the medallion will be Scott Angle, dean and director of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia and chair of the Policy Board of Directors of the APLU Board on Agriculture Assembly.

Four panel discussions will follow focused on setting the agenda in the areas of Education, Engineering and the Physical Sciences, Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Humanities and the Social Sciences.

Joining Secretary Duncan on the Education panel are John "Jack" Horner, Regents Professor of Paleontology and curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies; and Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York System. Bernard Machen, president of the University of Florida and chair of the APLU Morrill Sesquicentennial Committee will moderate the panel.

Secretary Vilsack will be joined on the Agriculture and Natural Resources panel by M.R.C. Greenwood, president of the University of Hawaii and Gebisa Ejeta, professor of agronomy at Purdue University and 2009 World Food Prize Laureate. University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise will serve as moderator.

The Engineering and the Physical Sciences panel features Sylvester James Gates, John S. Toll Professor and director of Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland and member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), and Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering and president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Carolyn Mahoney, president of Lincoln University (MO) will serve as moderator.

University of Maryland, College Park President Wallace Loh will moderate the Humanities and the Social Sciences panel. Daniel Fogel, professor of English and former president of the University of Vermont, and Claudia Mitchell Kernan, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, will serve as panelists. Fogel is co-editor of a new book of essays on land-grant universities, Precipice or Crossroads? Where America's Great Public Universities Stand and Where They Are Going Midway through Their Second Century. Published by SUNY Press, the book is being distributed at the convocation and is available from the SUNY Press website.

University of Texas El Paso President Diana Natalicio and Little Big Horn College President David Yarlott, Jr., will moderate two panels featuring addresses by students. Meghann Keely Morrill is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Virginia School of Law and will soon begin a law career in Dallas, TX. She also is a member the U.S. National Shooting Team. William Justin Morrill is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno and is employed by ISN, a software and procurement company located in Dallas, TX. Darwin Cajero of Jemez Pueblo, NM, is pursuing an associate's degree in natural resources at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, a 1994 land-grant institution. Felena King-Cooley of St. Louis, MO, is a student at Lincoln University (MO).

Gene Block, chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, and chair of the APLU Board of Directors will offer closing remarks.

The complete agenda and schedule: APLU Convocation.

  • The Land Grant Frescoes in Old Main, created by Henry Varnum Poor in 1948, pay tribute to the establishment of the University and land-grant education.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated June 25, 2012