Saluting the Morrill Act


Last week, I joined some 70 of my fellow land-grant university presidents for a group portrait at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. We were in the capital for several days of meetings focused on our amazing system of land-grant institutions and to celebrate the occasion of the 150th anniversary of its beginning.

There are a number of “first” claimants among our 106 land-grant institutions, including Michigan State, which without doubt was a prototype for the concept. The Agricultural College of the State of Michigan was chartered under Michigan law as a state land-grant institution on February 12, 1855, receiving an appropriation of 14,000 acres of state-owned land. We opened our doors in 1857.

Five years later, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation on July 2, 1862, that came to be known for its dogged sponsor, Rep. Justin Morrill of Vermont. This was during the second year of a bitter civil war that was going very badly for the Union and would take three more bloody years to decide.

One might not have recognized that moment for a watershed period for America’s future, but calamity sometimes paves the way for great developments. In that dark time, ground was laid not only for America’s model system of public higher education but also for transportation in the form of railroads and the settlement of land by homesteaders.

In Michigan as elsewhere around the North, agricultural advocates had been calling for dedicated agricultural colleges for years before the Morrill Act. Much of this ferment was occurring in the Midwest and Northeast as proponents set up a steady drumbeat for establishment of federally backed agriculture colleges.

They were concerned about issues of productivity and market competitiveness in what was by then a world economy. Michigan State’s own founders likewise kept a wary eye on the global competition.

The State Agricultural Society of Michigan, when meeting in 1850, looked with envy on European nations’ establishment of agricultural schools and model farms, where distinguished natural scientists lectured and discoveries were published.

Today, when we talk about the need to promote innovation, remember it was Justin Morrill who framed land-grant in terms of national competitiveness. On the floor of the House of Representatives, he argued in 1858: “We owe it to ourselves not to become a weak competitor in the most important field where we are to meet the world as rivals.”

Importantly, by the time the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan was created, the concept went beyond a farming trade school. It was a time of emerging knowledge in natural sciences such as agricultural chemistry, which created a thirst for the transmission of such knowledge to common people.

Higher education came to be seen as a practical tool, not just something to burnish the pedigree of the elite. Influenced by Enlightenment thinking, many of our own founders held education in high esteem for its improvement of moral character and mental faculties.

So, an academic and scientific curriculum was part of the mix with hands-on agriculture from the start in Michigan. And while classical studies drove the established universities of the day, our founders insisted, instead, on teaching the living language of English through reading, writing, and rhetoric, together with practical education that included the mechanical arts.

This hybrid agricultural college wasn’t a universally popular notion in Michigan, we should acknowledge, as the liberal academic curriculum raised concerns among some of our stakeholders. Many students saw higher education as their ticket to leave the farm, to the consternation of their parents.

So there was tension from the start—something universities have become accustomed to balancing ever since.

It was an iffy proposition financially, too, and we struggled. Our college was broke by the end of 1858—$13,000 in the red. The college’s board then sent its first president, Joseph Williams, to Washington to lobby for the Morrill Act.

In the early years, students were expected to put in three hours of physical labor daily, in the beginning doing more wood chopping and stump pulling than conducting agricultural experiments and pitching in to help build the facilities, too.

There was no guarantee that this agricultural college experiment—that’s exactly how it was regarded—would succeed in welding together a stable platform based on education, research, and outreach. The tension of the early years might at any moment have created rifts that could have proven fatal to the institution.

Students, I’ll note, overwhelmingly supported the liberal academic program. And demand for this institution and curriculum wasn’t limited to Michigan farmers. As soon as we opened, queries started coming in from people and schools around the country seeking to associate with us or copy our example. By the time Justin Morrill argued for a land-grant act, he would point to “… some examples, like that of Michigan, liberally supported by the states, in the full tide of successful experiment …”

The Civil War took the very first class of graduates of State Agricultural College away from their commencement, as the entire seven-member class of 1861 was allowed to depart before formal graduation to serve in a topographical engineering unit in the federal army.

In 1865, we introduced the nation’s first course in scientific agriculture and began the first scientific tests of fertilizers on crops. That same year, we fielded our first baseball team. Five years later, we received the first payment from the proceeds of the Morrill Act: $2,779.89. And we admitted our first women.

So today, 150 years from the day President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, we honor those who, even with their considerable vision, probably would find it hard to conceive the outcome of their action just a few generations later.

But at Michigan State, though so much is different, so much is also the same. We are still deeply engaged in our Michigan communities as well as around the world. Still pursuing the practical as well as the theoretical. Still negotiating the tensions inherent in our multifaceted mission. And above all, still advancing the common good in uncommon ways.

Now there’s a Spartan Saga.

Photo of land-grant university presidents. 
Photo by Charles Votaw Photography


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