ASHS President Dewayne Ingram reflects on the 150th anniversaries of the Morrill Act of 1862 and the U.S. Department of Agriculture
The year 1862 was a momentous year in the life of the United States of America. We were engaged in a great Civil War that had already cost hundreds of thousands of lives with no end in sight. That year Congress passed the Morrill Act to establish the land-grant university system, with President Lincoln signing it into law on July 2. On May 15, 1862, he had signed legislation creating the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Morrill Act of 1862 granted each state 30,000 acres of public land for each of its senators and representatives in Congress for the purpose of endowing “at least one college in each state where agriculture and the mechanical arts should be taught.” That is why they were called land-grant colleges, and now, universities. The stated purpose of the Morrill Act was “. . . to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.” Congress recognized that higher education for Americans was fundamental to the growth and prosperity of our nation. It was to provide access to higher education for anyone, not just the wealthy who could afford to be educated in elite institutions based on the European model. It is also interesting to note that today, 85% of undergraduate degrees conferred in the U.S. are from land-grant universities.
Morrill’s second Land-Grant College Act was signed into law in 1890 and provided for the establishment and support of colleges to serve the African American population. These universities are often referred to as the 1890 Land-Grant institutions or Historically Black Colleges and Universities; located primarily in the south. In 1972, land-grant status was assigned to universities in the Pacific and U.S. Caribbean Territories. The Equity in Educational Land-Grant Status Act of 1994 conferred land-grant status on 29 Native American colleges “…to encourage American Indians—especially those living on reservations—to overcome the barriers in higher education.”
It is important to know and understand the history of the land-grant system and to teach its worth to current and future populations. I have used a lecture period in our Introduction to Horticulture Professions course for more than 15 years to introduce horticulture majors to the history, nature, benefits, and opportunities of land-grant universities, particularly the University of Kentucky. I strongly believe that it is imperative for our students, and colleagues without experience in a land-grant university, to know how and why the land-grant university system was established and to understand its mission.
The mission of land-grant universities was expanded beyond teaching by the establishment of state Agricultural Experiment Stations in 1887 through the Hatch Act for “. . . scientific advancement for solving problems and providing opportunities.” The Cooperative Extension Service was established in 1914 by the Smith–Lever Act which, created a “. . . unique cooperative arrangement between county, state, and federal governments for extension of research-based knowledge.” The three interrelated programs of teaching, research, and extension in the land-grant university system have been the envy of the world and from which the world has benefited greatly.
I had the privilege of representing ASHS at the APLU’s (Association of Public and Land-grant Universities) convocation on June 26 celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act. Speakers for the convocation included Bill Gates, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, and the U.S. Secretary of Education, among many others. It was an excellent program. There was certainly a lot of history presented as well as the current status of the land-grant system. However, I really enjoyed the keynote address provided by Bill Gates. A copy of Mr. Gates address can be found at www.aplu.org/document.doc?id=3957 and you can watch a video of his entire presentation and the follow-up question and answer period on C-Span’s website www.c-span.org/Events/Bill-Gates-Speaks-on-Future-of-Higher-Education/10737431893/
I was impressed with Mr. Gates’ knowledge and insight. He highlighted the fact that the land-grant university system is the best in the world, but the rising cost of higher education to students has limited access to a college education and increased student debt. State funding of higher education has decreased significantly in the past generation, especially in the past decade, and thus tuition has also increased. He related this fact to the mission of the land-grant system of providing wide access to higher education. He expressed his belief that financial aid for higher education should be needs based and provide incentives, for the institution and the student, to raise completion rates as well as the income and employment of graduates.
He also characterized land-grant universities as becoming more exclusive with increasingly higher admission standards and competition. He stated that universities are “. . . judged by how selective you are, by how many highly credentialed faculty you have, by the size of your resources, and even by other people’s impressions of your academic reputation. In the absence of agreed-upon measures of effectiveness, you’re competing against each other for the markers of exclusivity . . . In short, fewer people of those who want to attend your universities are getting in—and those who do get in are paying more.”
Of course, Mr. Gates talked about the future use of technology to increase the effectiveness and affordability of higher education. In addition to the more common online, video, and hybrid courses, he gave examples of how technology was being used for: remedial math for incoming freshmen, tracking individual performance through the semester, and simulation and games for teaching key concepts. He had some interesting thoughts that focused on student learning and achievement utilizing even more effective and efficient methods.
Mr. Gates also applauded the impact of research at land-grant universities over these 150 years and related his experience of collaboration between Purdue University and his Foundation to develop a storage bag for black-eyed peas now used in Central and West Africa to exclude weevils and increase the income of poor farmers by 25%.
Other highlights of the convocation included the presentation of The Norman E. Borlaug Medallion to APLU by the World Food Prize Foundation to honor the role of land-grant universities in feeding the world. Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, Distinguished Professor in Plant Breeding and Genetics and International Agriculture at Purdue University and past recipient of the Norman E. Borlaug Medallion, effectively addressed some of the significant impacts of research at land-grant universities, not only in the United States but around the world. A recap of the entire convocation has been posted on the APLU website. Participants of the convocation also received a collection of essays about higher education that you may find interesting. [Fogel, D.M. and E. Malson-Huddle (editors). 2012. Precipice or Crossroads: Where America’s Great Public Universities Stand and Where They Are Going Midway through Their Second Century. State University of New York Press, Albany. 318 p.]
The U.S. Department of Agriculture
While Congress recognized the role of the states in higher education, research, and extension and the role of the federal government to support such, Congress also recognized the role of the federal government in supporting agriculture for the common good by establishing the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862. This agency has also evolved over the decades; however, the USDA has always played critical roles for the United States at home and abroad that individual states cannot. Invasive pests important to the whole continent, long-term germplasm repository, national policies and priority programs in education, research and extension, natural resource conservation, and polices related to foreign trade are just examples of issues that USDA must address for the common good. Horticulturists often interact with scientists and staff in the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA, formerly CSREES), Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Economic Research Service (ERS), Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) and National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), but USDA is much broader than that. I have been educated about that breadth during the deliberations on the 2012 Farm Bill, much of which is not directly related to agricultural production and marketing. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps, school lunch programs, etc.), and the impact of our food policies and the direct provision of food in our relationship with other countries are but examples of my increased awareness. To our colleagues in USDA, I say happy 150th birthday!
For sure, not all ASHS members are employed by land-grant universities or USDA; however, I dare say the majority of our members have been impacted by them. I have not taken a formal survey, but I am confident that many, if not most, of the horticulture faculty at non-land-grant universities received their graduate degree(s) at land-grant universities. Regardless, it is constructive to pause and reflect on the impact these institutions have made in the world, including the science and profession of horticulture. We must celebrate our successes. It is true that we have many challenges ahead of us. The mission of these institutions will not be maintained without a fight for additional support and modifications in the way we provide higher education, conduct research and extend that research to commercial horticulture and the public. I encourage each of us to reflect on the impact that these institutions have made on our individual lives and then explore ways we can give back through innovative ideas for improving the system.
As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.
Published in the July 2012 issue of the ASHS Newsletter.