Vol. 7 / No. 1 / Winter 2012  

Lincoln’s Legacy: Land-Grant Colleges and Universities

by Abigail Deutsch

150 Years of Investment in Knowledge and Education

In 1832—fully three  decades before he  signed the Morrill  Land-Grant College  Act—Abraham Lincoln  declared, “Upon the  subject of education…I  can only say that I  view it as the most  important subject which  we, as a people, can  be engaged in.”One winter day in 1914, joy overtook the town of Riverside, California. “Holiday shoppers danced,” writes Kathy Barton, a present-day staff member at the University of California, Riverside. “The steam whistle on the electric plant blew for 15 minutes. Mission Inn owner Frank Miller ordered the bells at the venerable hotel be rung continuously.” Why such merriment? The University of California Regents had decided to keep the Citrus Experiment Station—a research center that had supported California’s citrus industry since 1907—in its UC Riverside home.

For 150 years, land-grant schools such as UC Riverside have buttressed the development of American science and agriculture. And, as suggested by the town’s display of glee, they’ve bolstered local communities as well. Riverside’s unique blend of civic and citrus pride sprouts from an 1862 piece of legislation called the Morrill Act, which created the American system of land-grant colleges. Before the passage of the act, higher education had been accessible to only the privileged few. Public and private universities alike had offered curricula based on their European precedents— designed for “the male leisure classes, government leaders, and members of the professions,” according to The Land-Grant Tradition, a booklet published by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). Accordingly, coursework at these universities focused on classical and pre- professional topics.

The goal of land-grant colleges was, among other things, to democratize this system: early supporters of such schools, writes historian Allan Nevins, believed that “no restrictions of class, or fortune, or sex, or geographical position—no restrictions whatsoever— should operate.” The same went for race. Justin Morrill, the senator who proposed the act, emphasized that African-Americans and Native Americans deserved schooling too.

A diverse curriculum would match this diverse population. While more and more Americans were recognizing science as a topic worthy of study, few schools taught the subject. But for Morrill, pursuits such as engineering, agriculture, and the “mechanical arts” deserved just as much emphasis as literature and history. He explained, while introducing his bill to Congress, that in land-grant institutions, “agriculture, the foundation of all present and future prosperity, may look for troops of earnest friends… at last elevating it to that higher level where it may fearlessly invoke comparison with the most advanced standards of the world.” And yet, he remarked in 1887, the design of land-grant colleges “comprehended not only instruction for those who hold the plow or follow a trade, but such instruction as any person might need— with ‘the world before them where to choose’—and without the exclusion of those who might prefer to adhere to the classics.” Morrill’s ideal school was a well-rounded one.

The act operated by granting federal land to states—30,000 acres per Congress member. Each state could then sell the property, directing the profit toward founding or supporting at least one school within five years; the state was expected to maintain its college buildings.

The Morrill Act was, as Michael David Cohen recently wrote in The New York Times, “one of the most transformative pieces of legislation in American history, seeding the ground for scores of high-quality public colleges and universities around the country.” The act has created many universities—from the University of Illinois to the University of Nebraska—and supported some preexisting schools, such as Pennsylvania State University and the University of Wisconsin. A few private schools, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, briefly, Yale University, gained support through the Morrill Act as well. Land-grant institutions haven’t merely provided instruction for millions of pupils; they’ve also exerted a profound impact on the American economy. In the thick of the Industrial Revolution, the Morrill Act enabled research and created workers key for agriculture and manufacturing, and has helped make the United States a global leader in agricultural production.

The Educational Legacy of a Blacksmith’s Son

The senator behind the act might have benefited from a land-grant education himself. A blacksmith’s son from Strafford, Vermont, Justin Morrill hoped to go to college but lacked the money. Later, notes Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), he wanted to provide other ordinary Americans with opportunities that had been unavailable to him. Educated largely by practical experience and by deep reading, Morrill served in the U.S. House from 1855 to 1867, and then in the U.S. Senate from 1867 until his death in 1898.

In devising the Morrill Act, the politician was knitting together strands of thought that had long run through the fabric of American life. According to M. Peter McPherson, president of the APLU, three major concepts drove the act. The first was a belief in democracy, paramount in America since the Declaration of Independence, and a corollary emphasis on bringing opportunities to as many citizens as possible. The second was the conviction that federal government should play a role in economic policy. (Morrill and Lincoln—who was president during the passage of the act—both admired Henry Clay, who supported the preservation of a strong national bank, tariffs, and other federal measures designed to bolster industry.) And the third was an increasing sense that Americans required science and technology education in order for their country to grow.

Additionally, the Morrill Act reflected a fourth longstanding American tendency: the wish to apply science to agriculture. Writes David G. Morrison, formerly of the Louisiana Experiment Station: “The first settlers quickly learned they had to adapt or starve. With a great variety of crops and soils, Americans began, through trial and error, to answer agricultural production questions early on.” He points out that many of the founding fathers—including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—were farmers who conducted agricultural experiments on their fields. Additionally, both men helped found societies geared toward improving agriculture “which were pioneers in agricultural science and education.”

Morrill drew not only on these great American themes, but also on more particular developments in the field of education. Many historians of the Morrill Act point to the contributions of Jonathan Baldwin Turner, a Yale graduate who moved west to teach at Illinois College. Librarian Donald Brown describes Turner as the “significant promoter of ideas underlying the [land-grant] movement”; he led a broad campaign for the establishment of colleges geared toward agriculture and industry. In 1850, he presented an influential address called “A Plan for a State University for the Industrial Classes,” which included many of the concepts key to land-grant universities— for instance, agricultural experimentation. In 1852, he set out the financial mechanics of a land-grant system in the Prairie Farmer newspaper. Turner’s ideas appeared often in print, and he conducted voluminous correspondences with editors, professional friends, and politicians.

But Turner did not originate such notions either. Rensselaer Institute in Troy, New York, had been providing “collegiate instruction in the fields” since 1824, Brown writes. And in 1841, a Captain Alden Partridge of Norwich, Vermont, had proposed to Congress “endowing a national system of technical institutions with proceeds of public land sales.”

One of Turner’s more impressive accomplishments occurred during the presidential campaign of 1860. According to The Life of Jonathan Turner, he extracted promises from both Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas that they would sign his bill if it appeared before Congress—which was as good as a promise to sign Morrill’s.

In President Lincoln, educational causes would find a friend. Himself an autodidact, he once remarked: “Upon the subject of education…I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we, as a people, can be engaged in.” The centrality of Lincoln’s legacy to the land-grant college system was evident at a conference held on June 23, 2012, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act. Under a blazing midafternoon sun, a soldier laid a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Constitution Brass Quintet played Civil War tunes such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Washington Greys,” a march favored by both Union and Confederate military bands, according to a catalogue from the event.

Presidents of land-grant institutions and others stand outside the Lincoln Memorial on June 23, 2012, after a  wreath-laying ceremony commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s signing of the Morrill Act creating  land-grant colleges.

Addressing the crowd with his back to Lincoln, Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian remarked that he didn’t believe in séances, but that he hoped the President could hear him anyway. “You gave us a land of opportunity, not opportunists; you believed America not perfect, but perfectible,” he said, and turned to speak to the statue. “We need leaders like you more than once a century,” he said. “So thank you, Mr. President. Thank you for everything you’ve done.”

The timing of the Morrill Act was fortuitous not just because of the president in power. Morrill attempted to enact his legislation twice, and the first time, in 1859, it passed Congress only to be vetoed by President James Buchanan. The Civil War began in 1861, and by 1862, when Morrill proposed his act again, “northerners had discovered how ill-prepared they were for a crisis,” writes Michael David Cohen. “The peacetime Army had been tiny. Volunteers rallied to defend the Union, but what they brought in enthusiasm they lacked in experience…. To win the war, the Army had to create citizen-soldiers from scratch.”

And so Morrill wrote a new provision into the act, one that included military tactics among the subjects offered at land-grant institutions. This forebear to the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program lent the bill a new sense of necessity. Cannily, Morrill emphasized that urgency. Writes Cohen: “Bemoaning the unreadiness of Northern men to fight the rebels a year earlier, he blamed politicians in Washington for having ‘long assumed that military discipline’ was as ‘spontaneous’ as patriotism. That assumption, he said, had cost many lives. Had Congress earlier passed a law like the one he now proposed, ‘The young men might have had more of fitness for their sphere of duties, whether on the farm, in the workshop, or in the battle- field.’” Even though this amendment would have no bearing on the current conflict, the act’s supporters believed that graduates of land-grant schools would be prepared for war by the time the next one began.

The timing was advantageous for yet another reason: in 1859, some Southern representatives had opposed the act. But after the secession of the southern states, those politicians were no longer present in Congress to object.

At the conference in his honor, attendees praised Morrill for seeing beyond the bloody divisions of the Civil War. “This was nation-building on a grand and national scale,” remarked Senator Leahy. And it was just one element of a historic Congressional session that laid the groundwork for a prosperous America even as the country’s very existence had come under threat. That session passed the Homestead Act, which provided free land for Americans who moved west; the first national income tax, which helped finance the war; and legislation that would enable the construction of the transcontinental railroad.

Democratizing Education

Justin Smith Morrill (1810-1898), United States representative who  introduced the Morrill Land Grant College Act (1862).In keeping with the democratic principles behind the Morrill Act, the land-grant system has held particular meaning for the regions and groups most lacking in educational infrastructure. Perhaps ironically, the South is one such example. The Northeast had long offered excellent schools, but the South before the Civil War was “non- industrialized, agrarian, and dependent on northern states for production,” remarked Michael Adams, president of the University of Georgia, at the anniversary conference. “It was an educational backwater. There were state universities, but enrollment was low. Our institutions in the South have probably benefited most from the Morrill Act.”

Interestingly, racism helped encourage the development of land-grant schools in the region. Once the Civil War had ended and southern states had rejoined the Union, their governments opted against integrated colleges. A second Morrill Act, in 1890, demanded that states show race not to be a university admissions requirement, or else to found colleges for black pupils, too. Such states often ended up with two land-grant institutions, one for black students and one for white. Many historically black colleges and universities stem from this legislation, including Alabama A&M University, Kentucky State University, and North Carolina A&T University.

For westerners, too, the development of land-grant colleges proved crucial. It meant that “we need not go away from home for instruction,” noted Edward Ray, president of Oregon State University, at the conference. He added that in his region, “being place-bound is natural.” Montana State University, the University of Idaho, several schools within the University of California system, and many other western institutions have come into being thanks to the Morrill Act.

More recently, another group has received assistance from the legislation. In 1994, the Equity in Education Land-Grant Status Act named thirty- three Native American colleges land- grant institutions. Generally located in “remote, underserved communities that lack access to higher education,” these schools “take special care to include culturally relevant curriculum and programs in their institutions so that Native American students and communities can take pride in their cultural and historical identity,” according to the United States Department of Agriculture Web site.

In many ways, the tribal colleges are distinct from other institutions of higher learning. According to The Land-Grant Tradition, they provide high school completion (GED), remedial work, professional training, college preparation, and adult basic education programs. They also function as libraries and tribal archives and serve as centers for elder and child care, as well as for economic and community development. “It is an underlying goal of all [tribal colleges] to improve the lives of students through higher education and to move American Indians toward self- sufficiency,” notes The Land-Grant Tradition. The tribal colleges enroll about 19,000 students and engage with over 47,000 community members.

Outside the contexts of these legislative acts, Congress has designated still other land-grant schools. After the District of Columbia described itself as “the last substantial area in the nation without the services of a land-grant college,” in 1967, it gained a $7.24 million endowment and land-grant status. Four years later, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Marianas, Micronesia, and the Virgin Islands made a similar claim: they said they were “the only areas under the American flag which have not been allowed to participate in the land-grant college program.” In 1972, they received endowments and land-grant status as well.

Morrill’s emphasis on democracy has enjoyed a long legacy in federal educational policy. In the 1940s, the G.I. Bill permitted veterans access to a university education that might otherwise have been off-limits. Similar bills accompanied the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and America continues to offer educational benefits to members of the military. Immediately after World War Two, Congress created the Fulbright scholarship program, which funds scholars, students, and teachers who want to pursue their research at home or abroad. The National Security Education Act of 1991 grants scholarships to Americans planning to investigate understudied languages and cultures across the world.

Federal support for individual college students has also improved access to education. The Higher Education Act of 1965 included such provisions as the Federal Family Education Loan Program, which provided students with low-interest loans; need-based Pell Grants began in 1974.

At least partly as a result of such laws, enrollment in higher education rose from 4 percent of the college-age population, in 1900, to over 65 percent by 2000. “The United States,” Gregorian remarked during a college address, “has democratized access to higher education and attempted to nationalize opportunity at a scale unprecedented in world history.” The Morrill Act has played a crucial role in that effort.

Research and Science Aid the Progress of American Agriculture

In the wake of the Morrill Act, the federal government continued to pass bills that shaped the land-grant schools. The Hatch Act of 1887 responded to farmers’ requests to see “tangible evidence of the new land-grant colleges’ commitment to their well-being,” according to David G. Morrison. Additionally, once agricultural professors had exhausted their knowledge, they required more teaching material. The Act helped fulfill both of these needs, permitting land-grant colleges to establish agricultural experiment stations that aimed to:

…conduct original and other researches, investigations, and experiments bearing directly on and contributing to the establishment and maintenance of a permanent and effective agricultural industry of the United States, including researches basic to the problems of agriculture in its broadest aspects, and such investigations as have for their purpose the development and improvement of the rural home and rural life and the maximum contribution by agriculture to the welfare of the consumer.

The Hatch Act has affected American agriculture significantly. Research results from experiment stations have improved the conditions of both farms and farm animals, according to the Web site of Oklahoma State University’s station, largely removing “the specter of hunger and the drudgery of subsistence agriculture production.” While the system had been designed to benefit particular regions, “more often they have application in many places, and some breakthroughs resulting directly from Hatch Act funding have literally benefitted every man, woman, and child in the United States and much of the world.” The Citrus Experiment Station at UC Riverside— that cause of great glee in 1914—is just one of many stations authorized by the Hatch Act, which has also enabled soil surveys in Nevada, advances in sugar farming in Louisiana, and many other efforts elsewhere.

With land-grant schools and experiment stations firmly in place, scientists began uncovering new knowledge and producing new guidelines. Yet the ordinary farmer had no easy way to access this information—organizations such as farmers’ institutes, tomato clubs, and agricultural societies proved insufficient to the task, according to the Web site of Mississippi State University’s Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. As a result of this communication problem, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act in 1914. The legislation founded a network of cooperative extension services, enabling land-grant colleges to provide ordinary citizens with instruction in agriculture, leadership, 4-H, and other topics—“diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects related to agriculture and home economics, and to encourage the application of the same.” Such instruction was carried out by agents of the extension service.

In more recent years, inspired by the Morrill Act, Congress has begun authorizing new kinds of schools. In 1966, it established the first “sea-grant” colleges. These institutions surfaced after the oceanographer Athelstan Spilhaus wrote, in Science magazine, that they “would be modernized parallels of the great developments in agriculture and the mechanic arts which were occasioned by the Land-Grant Act of about a hundred years ago . . . Establishment of the land-grant colleges was one of the best investments this nation ever made. That same kind of imagination and foresight should be applied to exploitation of the sea.” Today, thirty-two sea-grant programs aim to develop the sustainable use of American resources along the coasts, in the oceans, and in the Great Lakes, harnessing research and educational programs that disseminate information ranging from advanced scientific results to public school curricula.

“Space-grant” institutions came into being in 1989, thanks to the efforts of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This network of American colleges and universities works to improve education in science and engineering, research, and outreach, with the goal of encouraging citizens to understand and take part in NASA’s projects.

A mural at Purdue University, a land-grant university, depicts Lincoln signing the Morrill Act, which created  land-grant colleges.

And “sun-grant” schools, so designated in 2002, partner with federally funded laboratories to help develop a biobased economy—an economy based on substances derived from living material. They also aim to support American farmers by developing biobased, renewable-energy raw materials.

Land-Grant Institutions: Still Evolving

The contributions of land-grant colleges to the American way of life are manifold—and as the anniversary conference made clear, university presidents aren’t shy about discussing their schools’ contributions. During a spirited question-and-answer session, administrators started shouting out their points of pride: the University of Georgia, for instance, discovered that blueberries grow better than peaches in that state, yielding not only delicious fruit but also considerable wealth. Oregon State University has done wonders for wheat. And the University of Missouri, proclaims its representative, “saved the global wine industry.” He was referring to an episode in the 1880s when vineyards in Europe fell prey to the phylloxera bug, to which American vines were immune. At the University of Missouri, scientists started grafting French plants into American root stock, creating a vine that resisted the dreaded bug while producing the desired grape.

The schools boast impressive alumni as well. In 1894, George Washington Carver received his bachelor’s degree from Iowa State University, where he later became a faculty member. Maurice Hilleman graduated from Montana State University in 1941. He went on to discover eight out of the fourteen regularly scheduled vaccines, including measles, mumps, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, meningitis, chicken pox, and pneumonia. It has been suggested that he saved more lives than any other scientist. Explained Waded Cruzado, the president of Montana State: “He was a man who went to college because of an exception, and he became an exceptional man.” The combined efforts of many such exceptional scholars have impacted America hugely: according to McPherson, since 1945, half or more of the GDP has had its root in technology from land-grant universities.

Today, more than 100 land-grant institutions (including 18 historically black institutions) thrive in the United States. McPherson points to an increase of 23 percent in enrollment in public universities in the last decade, adding that universities do 60 percent of the research funded by the government. According to the APLU, the schools’ aim remains “to apply new knowledge to drive economic activity, enhance agricultural and industrial productivity, and improve quality of life.”

From a student’s perspective, how do land-grant schools differ from private schools? According to Jimmy Cheek, chancellor of the University of Tennessee, such institutions often look similar. But private schools tend to offer broader curricula and to require fewer courses in any given major, while land-grant colleges go narrower and deeper. Additionally, land-grants focus more on career, emphasizing applied knowledge rather than knowledge for knowledge’s sake; where private colleges would offer undergraduate economics majors, land-grants would offer business degrees. A comment by the president of the University of Georgia, Michael Adams, illustrates that career orientation: “students are heading to agricultural colleges because there are jobs there,” he says.

The student bodies of private and public schools differ too: land-grant institutions expect to teach more students whose parents haven’t attended college, to offer “opportunity for the masses,” as Morrill had in mind.

Yet they have evolved to keep up with the times. While all land-grant institutions were at first known as agricultural/ mechanical colleges—hence the “A & M” in many universities’ names—the schools have added to their rosters computer science, marine biology, ecology, aerospace sciences, renewable energy alternatives, and more, says Edward Ray, the president of Oregon State University.

Lincoln University is a land-grant institution founded in 1866 by  members of the 62nd and 65th United States Colored Infantry  and designated a land-grant institution by the state of Missouri  under the second Morrill Act of 1890. In 2007, according to U.S.  News and World Report, Lincoln University was ranked #3 for  economic diversity, #5 for campus ethnic diversity, and #9 for  most international students among master’s level universities in  the Midwest.

And for better or worse, their problems have evolved, too. The challenges facing most American universities are the challenges of land-grant institutions as well. These include student debt: federal and state funding has decreased, particularly during the recent recession. Meanwhile, foreign nations have increased support for research and development, and their universities have grown more competitive. “While U.S. institutions have long attracted outstanding students and scholars from around the world who have contributed substantially to our research and innovative capacity, other countries are rapidly strengthening their institutions to compete for the best international students and for faculty, resources, and reputation,” notes a booklet by the National Research Council of the National Academies, Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security.

That booklet also critiques the “management, productivity, and cost efficiency” among both administrators and academics, pointing to a failure to invest in campus infrastructure. It calls for briefer doctoral and postdoctoral programs that more directly provide students with career training, arguing that too many challenges face young faculty who want to start their teaching careers and research programs. It decries the lack of funding for research, and criticizes “a burdensome accumulation of federal and state regulatory and reporting requirements,” which “increases costs and sometimes challenges academic freedom and integrity.”

Citing the decreasing number of large corporate research laboratories, the Counsel also points to a need for business and industry to team up with universities “at a time when the new knowledge and ideas emerging from university research are needed by society more than ever.” And it notes changes in American demographics, encouraging measures to assist women and underrepresented minorities.

Above all, the Research Counsel recommends leadership and cooperation among universities, businesses, philanthropy, and state and federal politicians “if our research universities and our nation are to thrive.” On its Web site, the APLU suggests similar measures: “The time has come for a renewed partnership between public higher education and society. Our nation relies on a higher education system operating in the land grant tradition of integrating learning, discovery and engagement.” ■ 


Abigail Deutsch is a writer based in New York. Her work appears in The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Bookforum, The Village Voice, and other publications.

Vol. 7 / No. 1 / Winter 2012