Industry Insights: Marking the Morrill Act

Most of the year, I call my home Madison, Wis. In the heart of the University of Wisconsin campus, cresting Bascom Hill, sits a statue honoring a man most Americans would agree was a visionary leader Abraham Lincoln.

He is not emblazoned at the University of Wisconsin for his role in holding together a divided country through what was arguably one of its most tumultuous eras, though he could be. The reason he’s honored there is for his role in shaping not only our university, but modern agriculture.

During the dark days of the Civil War, 150 years ago this month, Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, legislation that created the land-grant university system, into law. The act granted 30,000 acres of land to each state for each member of Congress that state had. The money raised from the sale of the land, a combined $7.5 million nationwide, was to be invested by each state to create new institutions or boost existing programs focused on agriculture, industry and home economics.

Today’s land-grant institutions are agricultural research powerhouses. Over the past 150 years, they’ve supported research that has driven agricultural productivity to impressive levels. While the topics of research have changed, the mission of the land-grant system has not. Land grants do research that aims to both add to our understanding of the world and, perhaps more importantly, serve the people of their state and nation.

As institutions, land grants were created with hopes that the education they promised would be open to all, helping to boost the human capital of the population, particularly in agriculturally-dominated, rural areas. Relevant to anyone with involvement in youth livestock programs, Cooperative Extension and its 4-H program were born out of the land grant philosophy of taking knowledge to the people, wherever they were.

While they boast a legacy of discovery and continue to serve agriculture and the broader population, most land-grant colleges, like many other state-supported institutions of higher education, are fiscally-challenged in a very significant way. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, state support for higher education dropped over 25 percent from 1990-2010 as states struggle to make ends meet. At the federal level, deficit reduction efforts also threaten grant dollars that have helped fund research at the land-grant level for many years.

Faced with these challenges, land grants have been forced to innovate. Obtaining extramural dollars, increasing private giving and finding savings wherever possible have been parts of the solution to budget woes in many states. But funding challenges have also caused tuition to grow at rates that some fear will make a college education at some of our nation’s premier public schools out of reach for many. Extension programs, too, are dealing with budget cuts that impact local livestock programs.

Many of us have a story to tell about the importance of the work these institutions do. If we hope to see the next 150 years of land-grant agricultural colleges have just as much impact as the first, it’s time we start telling that story to our elected officials and, maybe more importantly, the general public. This anniversary is the perfect opportunity for that.

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