Conference reviews history, impact, future of land-grant universities

June 20, 2011

University Park, Pa. -- American land-grant colleges and universities -- beneficiaries of the federal Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862 -- are turning their attention to the transformational legislation as its 150th anniversary approaches in 2012. Penn State is initiating the conversation June 22-24 by hosting a national conference focused on land-grant universities' history and impact.

The Legacy and the Promise: 150 years of Land-Grant Universities, to be held on Penn State's University Park campus, will feature historians and scholars on eight panels comprising 18 presentations as well as remarks by Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and Penn State President Graham Spanier.

"The purpose of this conference is to bring together scholars in advance of the Morrill Act's 150th anniversary to harvest new perspectives and research on the evolving mission of today's land-grant universities," said Roger Geiger, distinguished professor of higher education at Penn State and co-chair of the conference. "By showing how these universities have changed over time, we hope to develop a clearer sense of the 21st-century role of the land-grant mission."

Land-grant institutions have traditionally pursued a threefold mission of extending access to higher education, cultivating practical fields like agriculture and engineering, and contributing to economic development.

Conference presentations will examine topics including 19th-century conflicts during the colleges' establishment, 20th-century transformations from agricultural colleges to national research universities, challenges and opportunities of engaged scholarship and agricultural extension, and visions for the 21st century and beyond.

The land-grant concept was established to offer advanced instruction to the working class, to educate farmers and assist with the success and growth of agriculture as well as to educate future engineers to assist industry and encourage economic development through scientific research.

Today, that outreach responsibility to benefit the public has increased to several other applications of science and technology, ranging from nutrition to petroleum engineering, as well as online instruction, all while the universities are facing public funding challenges.

"Many of America's land-grant universities are recognized among the top universities in the United States and the world, particularly regarding research," said Roger Williams, executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association and conference co-chair. "They provide significant value to what this country has accomplished and have shaped the direction of all universities. Today, even private colleges large and small have adopted the concept of public service in response to the example established by American land-grant universities. This conference provides a convergence of historical and contemporary perspectives, providing context about our origins and development as we look forward to our future in higher education."

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On May 13, 2011, Roger Geiger spoke about Penn State's history as a land-grant university at the initiation and awards ceremony of Penn State's Phi Beta Kappa chapter, Lambda of Pennsylvania. A transcript of his talk is available online.

  • An excerpt from the Morrill Act is inscribed atop the portico of Old Main, just below the bell tower.

    IMAGE: Jill Shockey/Penn State Public Information

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Last Updated April 29, 2013