Remembering Justin Morrill

Does the name Justin Smith Morrill ring a bell? Perhaps not, although I am sure you know about the Morrill Act, which President Lincoln signed into law 150 years ago. That legislation created the nation’s land grant universities and remains one of the most significant pieces of federal education legislation in our history. (That short list also includes the G.I. Bill, the National Defense Education Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the Pell Grant legislation.)

U.S. Representative Morrill, who never attended college, actually pushed the legislation through Congress in 1858, but President Buchanan vetoed it in 1859. Lincoln had a better grasp of the future and signed it into law in on July 2, 1862.

Mr. Morrill, responding to the power of the industrial revolution, was convinced that America’s future depended upon education — but not just the classical liberal arts curriculum offered in most colleges and universities. His legislation called for education to be ‘accessible to all,’ especially to working men, and to focus on practical agriculture, science and engineering.

Here’s part of what he wrote in support of his Act:

We have schools to teach the art of man slaying and to make masters of “deep-throated engines” of war; and shall we not have schools to teach men the way to feed, clothe, and enlighten the great brotherhood of man? It is just on the part of statesmen and legislators, just on the part of other learned professions, that they should aid to elevate the class upon whom they lean for support, and upon whom they depend for their audience.”

He went on: “Pass this measure and we shall have done:
Something to enable the farmer to raise two blades of grass instead of one;
Something for every owner of land;
Something for all who desire to own land;
Something for cheap scientific education;
Something for every man who loves intelligence and not ignorance;
Something to induce the father’s sons and daughters to settle and duster around the old homesteads;
Something to remove the last vestige of pauperism from our land;
Something to obtain higher prices for all sorts of agricultural productions; and
Something to increase the loveliness of the American landscape.

Morrill’s Act only envisioned the creation of a land grant institution in every state, but today the US has 110 of these colleges and universities, including 31 Native American colleges and most Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Almost all are public, although both Cornell and MIT began as land grant institutions and retain that designation.

These 110 institutions now enroll 1.8 million students.

The University of New Hampshire has seen a 41.3 percent slash in its funding.

Each state received land (30,000 acres for each Representative and Senator a state sent to Congress) and money to build these institutions, because Morrill wanted to provide a “sure and perpetual foundation” for higher education.

I am thinking about Justin Morrill because, in just a few days, a group will gather in Morrill’s hometown of Strafford, Vermont, to celebrate the Morrill Act and to contemplate the future of higher education. The symposium includes James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, and U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. I’ve been asked to provide a reporter’s perspective.

Now about those two phrases in bold, ‘sure and perpetual foundation’ and ‘accessible to all.’ The economic situation of much of higher education is perilous, and that includes land grant institutions. Ohio State, the third largest of our land grant universities, now receives less than 15% of its funding from Ohio, and that amount is being cut another 11.8%. New Hampshire has cut its appropriation to the University of New Hampshire by an astonishing 41.3%. Perhaps because it’s the home of Justin Morrill, Vermont has cut its funding for the University of Vermont by only 6.4%.

That’s a shaky foundation, not a ‘sure and perpetual’ one.

“Accessible to all” is increasingly problematic. The maximum Pell Grant is just $5,550, but the cost of one year at the aforementioned University of New Hampshire is now $26,186 (tuition, fees, room and board). That’s for a resident — add $10K for out-of-state students.

It’s over $20,000 at Ohio State for residents, and nearly $36,000 for out-of-state residents.

And in Justin Morrill’s home state, a year at UVM costs residents $28,463 and out-of-staters $49,135.

“Accessible for all?” I don’t think so.

Certainly Justin Morrill should be proud of what his law has accomplished. Millions of Americans have been educated at these institutions, and research done there has benefited agriculture, medicine, science, education and beyond.

But what lies ahead is the issue…

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2 thoughts on “Remembering Justin Morrill

  1. Great post, John. When I taught a course on access policy and research, I started with the two Morrill Acts as the nation’s first major commitment to higher ed access. What an extraordinary impact the Senator from Vermont had. But as you note, we face some real challenges is honoring Morrill’s intent.

    Side note: At Michigan State I saw a framed replica of the Morrill Act — hand written, only two pages as I recall! See


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