Morrill Act Opened Doors for 19th Century Americans

Apr 26, 2012

Michigan State University often boasts of its status as America’s “pioneer land grant university.”  In 1855, MSU was chartered under state law as an agricultural college.  The deal included 14,000 acres of state owned land.  Seven years later, the Morrill Act granted federally-owned land to the states to build new universities. 

The act marked a major shift in American education.  Up till then, colleges mainly emphasized the liberal arts.  Land grant universities still taught the classics, but also included agriculture, science and engineering. 

This week, MSU is marking the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act.  WKAR’s Kevin Lavery spoke with MSU Museum curator Kurt Dewhurst about the law that redefined the college experience.

KURT DEWHURST:   It really connected and opened up doors.  It became a piece of legislation that provided access to advanced higher education for people who up until that time did not have that opportunity.  So it made, I think, the possibility of a democratic American vision possible.  And it made it possible for people to enter not only the areas of occupation that perhaps were initially envisioned, but also it opened the door towards health professions and legal fields.  And since that time, it’s become a model not just only for us in the United States to learn from one another at land grant institutions, but it’s been copied around the world.

KEVIN LAVERY:   Michigan State University was the “pioneer land grant university,” as it bills itself.  How did that come to be in 1855, seven years before it was actually officially law?

DEWHURST:   There was a movement in the state of Michigan through what was then the equivalent of the Department of Agriculture in our state to create an agricultural college.  And there had been a lot of discussion about that, and of course, the creation of Michigan Agricultural College came early on.  They were poised to be among the first to take advantage of the expansion in terms of access of land and to be able to develop a campus of the scale that we now know.  That large allocation of land made the modern, research-intensive university of Michigan State today possible.

LAVERY:   Michigan State University markets itself as a “world grant” university; having a world grant mission.  How does that differ from what the original Morrill Act provided?  What precisely do we mean when we as a university say that we are a “world grant” institution now?

DEWHURST:   Well, I think we’ve recognized the power of the idea of the land grant institution in its original vision, which was very much focused at the state level, and to some extent at the national level.  But for the most part, it was to build capacity in the states and train and educate young people in those states.  As time has gone on and the barriers between states have come down and the world has gotten smaller, Michigan State University has always been one of the most internationally engaged universities.

Certainly, today when we think about working with communities, and one of the distinctive characteristics of land grant institutions is responding to local needs and community needs.  So, rather than just coming up with the idea and then having it trickle down, the idea is to work and respond to societal needs wherever they are.  And today, those communities may not be just local communities in Michigan or communities across the United States; they may be in Africa or they may be in Latin America.  And since Michigan State has such depth of engagement in that way, I think we’re seeing a different kind of model occur.

LAVERY:   Do you see a parallel between 1862, in which the United States was moving from an agrarian to an industrial society to now 2012, where the world is moving to a post-industrial, information economy?

DEWHURST:   Oh, I think very much so.  And I think that’s why it’s very important for Michigan State to be, I think, marking this moment in time.  We’re not only connected in new ways in the Information Age, but I think we’re also doing research in a very different way than we did in the past, or we do our work differently.  I think more and more today what you’re seeing in the modern 21st century land grant university is a commitment to really understand and work closely with communities in partnership with communities.  Co-creating responses to challenges, honoring local knowledge that exists, and to develop solutions in partnership that are not only solutions from a scientific angle, but also from a culture and human angle, of ‘what’s going to work best in that particular location?’”