Happy Birthday to us: The 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act

By Kurt Schindler

This week I’d like to welcome guest author Kurt Schindler, Michigan State University Extension land use educator. Please read our colleague’s reflections on the Morrill Act below:

On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law, creating a national network of colleges and universities meant to serve the higher education needs of farmers and laborers across the nation. This radical investment was also meant to foster economic development by stimulating the transfer of knowledge from research into practice on farms, in factories and in families (agriculture, home economics, public policy/government, leadership, 4-H, economic development, natural resources, coastal issues and many other related subjects). The uniquely American aspect of the act was the direct investment of resources into the creation of these institutions by grants from the U.S. government. And those grants came in the form of publicly owned land that was turned over to the state government, which in turn could use that land grant to house the university, to sell for capital to use in building the university or both. From that unique concept came the common name for this act and the institutions it helped to support: the Land Grant Act and land-grant colleges and universities. Michigan State University is Michigan’s land-grant institution, which is why Extension in Michigan is part of MSU, and why Extension provides service to Michigan residents.

We at Michigan State University like to point out MSU was the first land-grant university to be formed (although Penn State wrongly also makes that claim). (Hey, we are supposed to have this particular bias.)

The Morrill Act was expanded with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which created a nationwide Extension system and directed the nation’s land-grant universities to oversee its work. This resulted in an Extension office in virtually every county in the United States. MSU Extension work began before the system was officially organized (and one might say the idea of Extension was copied from the idea born in Michigan). Michigan State College (now MSU) hired its first livestock field agent in 1907. In 1912, the Michigan Legislature authorized county boards of supervisors (now county commissioners) to appropriate funds and levy taxes to further teaching and demonstrations in Extension work. Eleven agricultural agents were named that year. Today, Extension is still funded through Smith-Lever federal funds, state matching funds, county funding, grants, contracts and fees for service. That three-way partnership, federal-state-county, is still a vitally important cooperative effort.

With the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, the first statewide home economics and 4-H youth Extension workers were appointed in Michigan; county home economics agents were appointed beginning in 1915. In the early years of Extension, “demonstration agents” showed or demonstrated new farming or homemaking techniques. Today, Extension agents use a wide variety of information systems to deliver educational information.

The land-grant and Extension idea worked. Many other countries copied the popular concept with India now supporting the largest Extension-like system in the world.

It is inspiring to be part of a vision that was created 150 years ago and that is still alive, transforming and improving to meet today’s needs. It’s hard to imagine what President Lincoln’s or Vermont Senator Justin Morrill‘s expectations may have been back in 1862. And it’s just as hard to anticipate how our organization and our mission may change and how it may remain the same 150 years into the future.

To view a copy of the Morrill Act and to find out more about it, visit the following websites:

Copy of the Morrill Act: http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=33&page=transcript

Ten-minute video posted on the home page of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU): http://www.aplu.org/page.aspx?pid=2190

Exhibits and information associated with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which will feature the anniversary of the Morrill Act on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., June 27–July 1 and July 4–8, 2012: http://www.festival.si.edu/2012/campus_and_community/

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