150 year anniversary of the Morrill Act
“An Act donating public lands to the several States and [Territories] which may provide colleges for the benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic arts.”
In the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law a piece of legislation that would ultimately transform public higher education in the United States. Named for the Vermont lawmaker behind the idea, the Morrill Act granted every state 30,000 acres of federal land for each member of its Congressional delegation. The intent of the act was to provide an incentive to the states to create institutions of higher education that would extend the teaching of agriculture, mechanical arts, military sciences and the “classics” to men and women from all walks of life. It would lay the groundwork for the democratization of public higher education all across our nation, marking for many Americans their first true hope of obtaining a meaningful education for themselves and their posterity.
Some 150 years later, many point to the Morrill Act as one of the more profound, nation-building acts in the history of the U.S. Congress – effectively providing access to higher education for all people, regardless of their means. As our state’s land-grant institution, Washington State University now has a long and unbroken heritage of providing an education to first-generation college students as well as many other students from underrepresented populations.
As a first-generation college student myself, I hold a profound personal sense of what access to higher education can mean. This is why, as I recently stood on the National Mall in Washington D.C., I gazed with a profound sense of pride upon the exhibits hosted by the Smithsonian Museum’s Folklife Festival. WSU was among the handful of land-grant institutions invited to showcase the many educational services and scientific achievements we provide to the citizens of our state and our great nation. Our exhibit entitled “Feed the World, Power the Planet,” focused on our rich heritage of agricultural research and the continuation of that research tradition into the 21st Century through our contributions to the development of the next generation of agricultural biofuels. It offered fine examples of both the historic importance of our mission as a land-grant institution and the continuing vital relevance of that mission now and into the future.
Today, the challenges to our great system of public higher education may seem more daunting, but the role of a land-grant institution has never been more necessary. As we pause now to celebrate the 150-year anniversary of the Act for which we owe our existence, let us recommit ourselves to our core missions of educating students from all walks of life, to pursuing the knowledge that helps solve the real problems of our day, and to ensuring the that the best science and research is delivered into the hands of those who need it most.
We have a long and distinguished legacy, bestowed upon us by leaders who remained visionary even through times of uncommon challenge and great national strife. Let us now remember and embrace the true purpose we inherited from them as we press forward with the efforts which will mark our legacy for the next 150 years.