COMMENTARY: Land-grant legacy should be celebrated

On Aug. 30, 1890, the U.S. Congress enacted the Second Morrill Act, thereby augmenting the land-grant college and university system. As we begin the 125th academic year after the Morrill Act II’s passage, it is important and appropriate to review the evolution of land-grant education, to identify its contemporary challenges, and to celebrate its achievements.

During the mid-1800s, a movement began for the establishment of agricultural or industrial schools. After state legislation in Illinois and Michigan, a federal act for same was sponsored by Congressman Justin Morrill of Vermont.

Although passed by Congress in 1859, the initial bill for a land-grant system of schools was vetoed by President James Buchanan. After the change of administrations and a reworking of the bill to include military and engineering training, the Morrill Act was reintroduced, passed again by Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Under the act, each state received a section of federal land to develop educational institutions consistent with the latter purpose. Unfortunately, many southern states blocked education for minority students, so, after the 1887 passage of the Hatch Act, which created agricultural experimentation stations, and the establishment of the American Association of Agricultural Colleges the same year, a second Morrill Act was enacted in 1890.

This law provided federal funds, rather than land, in most cases, but furnished schools under its purview with the same legal status as those created in 1862. Simultaneously, when states separated 1890 schools by race, the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) label was born.

Land-grant institutions experienced many changes in the 20th century. The 1914 Smith-Lever Act expanded the teaching and research mission of land-grant schools to include cooperative extension. By 1928, many of the land-grant schools started earning accreditation.

Forced segregation by race was outlawed by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court; 10 years later, the federal government officially recognized those institutions with a HBCU heritage and began funding them in earnest the next year.

The 1962 McIntire-Stennis Act expanded the areas of land-grant jurisdiction to include forestry and wildlife.

Finally, in 1994, Congress added to the original land-grant schools and the 1890 land-grants by including tribal colleges, as well. Today, land-grant institutions account for 3.5 million undergraduates, 1.1 million graduates and 645,000 faculty. Such schools collectively receive two-thirds of federal academic research funds in the United States annually.

Though flourishing in many ways, land-grant institutions have not been immune from the changing environment of public universities, including having to confront fiscal pressures for revenue, to accommodate a diverse demographic array of students, and to demonstrate ways in which they are both accessible and accountable to the public.

However, land-grant institutions’ special roles mean they are well positioned to provide research and resources to deal with 21st-century problems on a global scale, including issues like health, hunger and the environment.

To maintain their success in the future, those land-grant institutions with HBCU status must recognize that this nexus is not inconsistent. In addition to those areas listed above, the 1890 land-grant institutions should ensure that they remain the institutions of choice for underrepresented and underprivileged students of all races and ethnic backgrounds, promote leadership and service by students, advocate for those persons and groups suffering discrimination in society, and serve as a repository for preserving history.

Ideally, the 1890 land-grant schools will work to improve links with earlier and later land-grant institutions, which together have and will continue to positively influence the course of American higher education.

Editor’s note: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He served as chair of the Dover Human Relations Commission for five years.

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