150 Years Later, Revisiting Justin Morrill's Land-Grant College Act
07/23/12 12:42PM By Kirk Carapezza
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America's higher education system faces a challenge: skyrocketing tuition costs and deep cuts in state and federal spending.
And families looking at mounting student debt wonder whether they should invest in degrees that aren't leading to jobs that can pay off in a tough economy.
As educators and lawmakers discuss these issues, this summer they're also revisiting the nineteenth century Morrill Land Grant Act, the legislation that launched a nationwide project of building colleges and universities - including the University of Vermont. They're also asking whether the legislation's original mission to make education more accessible is now under threat.
On a hot, humid summer day on the UVM campus in Burlington, David McWilliams sweats as he walks slowly toward a podium. With thick, bushy side burns and a wool suit, he's dressed in character as Justin Smith Morrill, the Vermont statesman who proposed the land-grant college system in 1862. McWilliams is delivering the speech that Morrill gave as a congressman in 1858 to the House of Representatives, urging them to pass his land-grant college act:
"We have schools to teach the art of man slaying and to make masters of deep-throated engines of war. Shall we not have schools to teach men the way to feed, cloth and enlighten the great brotherhood of man?"
Four years after that speech, President Lincoln signed land-grant colleges into law, creating a fund that states could draw from to buy land on which to build colleges or, like in the case of UVM, to use the funds to support teaching agriculture and engineering.
The land-grant college act both broadened the curriculum and opened up higher education to the children of farmers and mechanics.
Senator Morrill was the son of a blacksmith. He grew up in Strafford in the early 1800s, and he never attended college.
"He had two semesters of high school. That was it," says David McWilliams, a board member of the Friends of the Morrill Homestead. "That was his total formal education. And it galled him that he didn't have the opportunity to go to college."
McWilliams says Morrill felt that no person who was intelligent and driven should be denied the opportunity to learn. "It also galled him that we were wasting our natural resources. As he said in his speech, people are using the land and draining it of all resources, leaving it fallow and then moving on to new lands. "
Today, land-grant institutions educate more than 85 percent of the students who receive bachelor's degrees, 70 percent of all graduate students, and they issue more than half of all doctorates. Historian Coy Cross says the impact of the Land-Grant Act is hard to understate.
"I would argue it still remains the most important act not only of the nineteenth century but up until today," Cross says. "Some people would argue the GI Bill after World War II. There would be no GI Bill if we hadn't had something like the Morrill Act to precede it, to open all these fields of study up and to make them open to the common people."
The land-grant act, Cross argues, was an idea whose time had come in America, where, by the 1860s, the belief was flourishing that educational opportunity can lead to a stronger democracy.
"In Europe, you had just appalling conditions cities because there was no land for the common people to move to," Cross says. "Here we had all this western land. This is Thomas Jefferson's vision of what America should become.
"All we have to do is make available to people farmland. They can farm. They can make their products. We'll ship them to Europe. They'll make the manufactured goods. We'll avoid all the problems that we see in European cities. This will be the ideal America."
Of course, the idea of a farmer making his living off the land has largely faded. But even today, when farmers make up just 1 percent of the population, that idea may forever be part of the American psyche.
From huge universities like Ohio State to small, community colleges, there are some 110 land-grant institutions. That includes 18 historically black colleges and 34 American Indian schools.
"This was nation building on a grand and novel scale,"said Senator Patrick Leahy, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the act at Library of Congress event. Leahy said land-grant institutions, even as they grapple with changes such as online education, are still the lifeblood of many communities.
"[They are] hubs of research, laboratories of critical thinking, drivers of economic growth, and in many ways most importantly, a place for public discourse," Leahy said.
On his first day on the job last week, UVM's new President Tom Sullivan told reporters that he's worried the goal of the 1862 land-grant legislation to broaden education is at risk.
"I think that many institutions are under-funded," Sullivan said. "If we look at the stated vision of this university it is to be a premier small public research institution with emphasis on liberal education, the environment, health care and public service."
In 1865 when UVM became a land-grant institution, economic development was one of its key pillars. Sullivan says that now, more than ever, UVM must make sure its curriculum improves a struggling economy. "I think that we can do that in great harmony with the state through our science and engineering colleges as we think about the appropriate niches where industries can grow and should be nurtured in Vermont."
Now, academic leaders across the country are calling for bold moves, in the spirit of Justin Morrill, to strengthen and preserve these nineteenth century institutions. Because if the government allows them to falter due to lack of funding, they say, democracy in the twenty-first century will decline.