This year we celebrate the 150-year anniversary of the Morrill Act enacted by the US Senate and House of Representatives and signed into law by President Lincoln. The act sets aside state lands for use and sale for the development of what have been termed Land Grant Institutions, with initially one per state. Examples include Texas A&M, University of Arizona, Michigan State University, Purdue University, Rutgers University, and University of Nebraska (note that there is no consistency in the word “state” in the institution title).
The goal of the act was for the “endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”
Since this act was written and enacted so long ago, it is certainly fair to ask if the land grant mission still applies today. Many have written on this, see 1, 2, 3, and 4. A land-grant university is to educate the people of its state and solve problems through academic endeavors, research and extension programs.
I see an important part of this land grant mission is an emphasis (but not exclusion) for educating the masses in practical skills, especially toward the pursuit of a profession, which is not necessary the goal in the liberal arts and performing arts. Often discussions on the meaning of the Morrill Act today relocate the word “arts” from its descriptor “mechanical” and place it next to “liberal”. While liberal arts certainly are an important part of education, they don’t appear to be the foundation upon which land grant institutions were developed. Those were often the focus of higher education institutes of the time and were not available to the general public due to a myriad of factors.
Today land grant institutions see their mission as driven by a need to be responsive to local needs (in their state and region), to make education as accessible to the public as possible, and to foster the use of science based methods for conducting business. Faculty, staff, and students at such institutions need to keep in mind our tradition of reaching out to our communities, of being productive agents of change in these communities, and in use of fact based evidence in the conduct of our business.