Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Aug. 10, 2012

The Morrill of the story

"This is the act that led to our university being formed and our claim of being the United States' very first land-grant university ..."

That phrase was in a letter sent from Kansas State University Provost April Mason to faculty and staff members last month. She was referring to the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862.

But the phrase bothered me a bit. Don't other universities also claim to be the first?

When husband Art came to K-State in 1977, he wondered how it could say it was "the first" land-grant university for he had taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and it had made the same claim. That was before the Internet made it so easy to research such things, but his curiosity drove him to do some checking. He discovered Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Pennsylvania State University and others were all claiming to be "the first."

To get some background on the Morrill Act, I searched on the websites of various land-grant universities, the Library of Congress and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. Sponsored by Vermont Congressman Justin Morrill, the act was officially titled "An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts."

At the time the bill was introduced, the focus of most colleges and universities was to educate a student in subjects such as art, literature, philosophy, religion, mathematics and science. They did not generally include what were then called the practical or mechanical arts. Subjects such as engineering, business, accounting, farming, journalism, medicine and many others were omitted. Stated in a different way, higher education allowed students to understand the world better, but without bothering with the messy business of how they could support or take care of themselves.

The Morrill Act sought to change this. Any school that opted to accept the free land, while it could offer those traditional university subjects, was to also provide for the practical and mechanical arts.

The support came in the form of 30,000 acres of Federal land given to a state for each member in its Congressional delegation as of the 1860 census. The land could be used in any way, including selling it and using the proceeds. The land didn't even have to be within the boundaries of the state accepting it. New York's Cornell University, for example, accepted timber lands in Wisconsin.

Sixty-nine colleges were funded by these land grants, including all of those claiming to be "first."

The Morrill Act was first proposed in 1857 and was passed by Congress in 1859, only to be vetoed by President James Buchanan. In 1861, Morrill resubmitted the act with the amendment that the proposed institutions would teach military tactics as well as engineering and agriculture. States in rebellion were barred from participation. It passed Congress and was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862.

A series of similar or related acts followed over the years. The Hatch Act of 1887 provided federal funds to land-grant schools to establish agricultural experiment stations. These were to expand knowledge in the areas of soil minerals and plant growth and share it with farmers. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 added extension agents to help bring the results of agricultural research to the end users, i.e. farmers and homemakers. A second Morrill Act in 1890 required that race not be an admissions criterion, or else to designate a separate land-grant institution for persons of color.

These programs were so successful that Congress established similar grants for programs concentrating in aquatic research, urban research, space research and sustainable energy research. Today, more than 100 land-grant universities serve the nation and the world.

But what is the story with different universities all claiming "the first" title?

*On Sept. 11, 1862, Iowa became the first state in the nation to accept the provisions of the Morrill Act. Ames College (now Iowa State University) was officially designated as a land-grant college on March 29, 1864. It is now both a land-grant and a space-grant university.

*Michigan State University was chartered under Michigan state law as a state land-grant institution on Feb. 12, 1855. In March 1863, it became a Morrill Act school as well.

*The Farmers' High School of Pennsylvania, later to become Pennsylvania State University, followed as a state land-grant school on Feb. 22, 1855. It too became a Morrill Act college in April of 1863.

*And Kansas State University? It was the first to be designated a land-grant college on Feb. 16, 1863 when its predecessor - Bluemont Central College - became Kansas State Agricultural College.

So, it appears that by using different criteria, such as the date the provisions of the act were accepted, when the doors first opened, when a state land grant was accepted and any number of other events, many can legitimately claim to have been first. And if no such basis can be found, well, it can always fall back on the ambiguity of the phrase "first land grant university." While we are inclined to take the "first" to modify "university" - meaning the university was the first to do it among other universities - it can also be taken to describe which land grant the school accepted. In this way, all 69 can legitimately claim to be "first."

But is this really an important thing? When it comes to education, I don't really care whether my school did something first or last. I think Provost Mason perhaps said it best in another part of her letter:

"... Our university was formed after a land gift to the state. It was built from scratch. ... With our knowledge and abilities, I am convinced we can make adjustments, rethink the way we have been doing things and adapt to the pressures of today's society to be even better for the future. We must. There are opportunities today that we can and will take advantage of if we don't forget our foundation of helping people learn, discovering new knowledge and engaging with communities to use that knowledge..."

Daughter Mariya and daughter-in-law Lacey pose in front of the east entrance to the K-State campus on their 2008 graduation day.

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