U.S. Universities: the origin of the Land Grants

My last blog reviewed the history and culture of higher education from the tablet writers of ancient Mesopotamia through the establishment of  colleges by the American Colonies.   This essay continues the story with the emergence of the public land grant university.   Few students (or faculty) at public universities know this history.

The beginnings of the Land Grant University

Americans have long valued public education. Early settlers built schools as cornerstones of their new communities.  Leading farmers of the 18th and 19th centuries were known for their interest in public speeches and pamphlets (the blogs of that era) introducing and debating new ideas.  Although the value of education among the elite had been recognized for some time in Europe, affordable public education for all was truly an American idea.

Jonathan Baldwin Turner, professor at Illinois College, graduate of Yale College and native of Templeton, Massachusetts championed the idea of a public university to serve “the working classes” in speeches and pamphlets in the 1830’s.  Support for Turner’s ideas grew among farmer groups, newspaper editors, industrial societies, and state and federal legislators. Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont introduced the legislation which would provide grants of public land (land grants) to be sold to finance a university in each state to “teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanical arts in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.”

We often associate the idea of “land grant” universities with farming and rural America.  I’ve heard some university leaders reject the land grant ideal as no longer relevant, given that most people today live in urban and suburban areas.  But the name “land grant” had less to do with farming than it did with the funding mechanism the federal government used to pay for the new public colleges.  What made these institutions truly unique was that they allowed access to higher education to those previously excluded, which in the later half of the 19th century were largely rural peoples.  If the land grant university was invented today, it would most likely focus on the urban poor.

The second Morrill Act (1890) further broadened the availability of higher education by providing federal appropriations to support “separate but equal” colleges for African Americans living in the Southern states. In 1994, Congress gave land grant status to twenty-nine Native American tribal colleges, thus continuing the tradition of extending the land grant ideal to marginalized peoples of the nation.  These landmark bills represented a major shift in thinking about the purpose of higher education, which previously had been available only to the wealthy classes.

Research and outreach to communities are added

Although the need for a national system of agricultural research was identified by President George Washington, it took nearly 100 years for Congress to pass legislation creating the agricultural experiment station system with the Hatch Act of 1887.  This legislation represented the second evolutionary step in the growth of the land grants.  It provided federal funding “to promote scientific investigations and experiments respecting the principles and applications of agricultural science.”   The research function was thus added to the evolving land grant ideal.

The third stage in the evolutionary growth of the land grants was accomplished with the passage of the Smith Lever Act in 1914, establishing the national Cooperative Extension Service “to aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture and home economics and to encourage the application of the same.”  Although the outreach programs of the public universities have been seriously undermined in many states by budget cuts, the concept of knowledge in service to the larger community remains an ideal of the public university.  

President of the University of Massachusetts Kenyon L. Butterfield was an early champion of the land grant ideal.  In a 1904 speech, President Butterfield made a case for the three land grant functions when he called for each college to support ” its threefold function as an organ of research, as an educator of students, and as a distributor of information to those who cannot come to the college.”   Butterfield recognized the necessary integration of the three functions when he stated “these are really coordinate functions and should be so recognized. The college should unify them into one comprehensive scheme. The principle of such unity is perfectly clear; for we have in research the quest for truth, in the education of students the incarnation of truth, and in extension work the democratization of truth.”   While Butterfield expressed this vision in 1904, it was many decades before his ideas were realized.

A brief look forward

The land grant ideal evolved over time to serve the practical needs of a growing nation by integrating research and outreach into the university teaching and learning experience – and making that experience available to previously excluded women and men. I believe the next expression of the land grant ideal will fully extend the university to those citizens not in residence on its many campuses.  It will do so in ways which further integrate research and teaching through online social networks and community-focused university outreach.

University of Wisconsin President C.R. Van Hise’s 1904 statement that “a state university can only permanently succeed where its doors are open to all” must be reinterpreted to not only allow previously excluded groups in, but also to send university scholars out to meet the people of the nation where they live and work. New communications technologies and online networks will not only support this effort, but will make it a necessity if the public university system is to thrive in the 21st century.

I believe those public universities that are able to build upon the land grant ideal, re-engage with the larger community, and take advantage of communications and societal networking technologies will thrive in the 21st century.  While I’m surely biased, I think one way to do this is through research and education focused on agricultural sustainability.  But frankly, we need to “put the public back into the public university” in all our many departments and disciplines.

What do you think?

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One thought on “U.S. Universities: the origin of the Land Grants”

  1. The issue presented here isn't discussed very often – at least not that I hear. While I don't think about it much either, it makes great sense. Public universities should be public and cooperative extensions should be revived to re-skill communities in home economics. Nothing wrong for with knowledge for it's own sake. But I want to live in a world where people know how to plant a potato and cook it too.

    Keep the thought provoking essays coming.

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