The Morrill Act and Its Engineering Legacy
Although the act addressed "agriculture and the mechanic arts," engineers have not always embraced its significance in the founding of their profession, as have the agriculturists. The act and its proponents deserve recognition for their role in establishing the U.S. as the global center of excellence in engineering education.
—Daniel E. Williams, Ph.D., P.E., THE BENT OF TAU BETA PI, Spring 2009, p15.
Prepared by the American Association of Engineering Societies
One hundred and fifty years ago (July 2, 1862), President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, land-mark legislation that allocated federal lands to each state and U.S. territory to establish and fund an educational institution to provide instruction in the agriculture and mechanical arts, "in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life."
Inspired by the efforts of Jonathan Baldwin Turner in Illinois to promote "industrial" education through establishment of agricultural colleges, the Land-Grant Act was championed by Senator Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, one of the co-founders of the Republican Party. Introduced in 1857 and again in 1858, the bill ran into strong opposition from Southern legislators and was vetoed by President James Buchanan in 1859. However, with the advent of the Civil War, Congress, sans its southern legislators, was able to pass the Morrill Act and a series of other landmark bills that ultimately transformed the growing nation, including the Homestead Act, the Emigrant Aid Act, two laws authorizing construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, and legislation creating the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
At introduction, Senator Morrill described the purposes of the Land-Grant Act to his Senate colleagues as follows: "This bill proposes to establish at least one college in every State upon a sure and perpetual foundation, accessible to all, but especially to the sons of toil, where all of needful science for the practical avocations of life shall be taught, where neither the higher graces of classical studies nor that military drill our country now so greatly appreciates will be entirely ignored, and where agriculture, the foundation of all present and future prosperity, may look for troops of earnest friends...:"
Prior to passage of the Morrill Act, college education was largely the purview of the wealthy, upper classes and almost all colleges and universities ascribed to a European model of education based on study of the Greek and Roman classics. As late as the 1860 census, only a handful of the nation's 397 colleges had departments of science or agriculture. The teaching of engineering as a discipline was primarily the purview of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Rensselaer Institute.
With the end of the Civil War and the establishment of Land-Grant universities, engineering education rapidly expanded in the U.S., from only 6 schools and 300 engineering graduates in 1866 to 21 schools graduating 866 engineers by 1870. By 1911, the U.S. boasted 38,000 engineers, with 3,000 new engineering graduates joining the workforce each year, nearly twice the number produced by other major industrial nations at the time, such as Germany. As noted by engineer/historian Daniel Williams, "In just 50 years after the passage of the Morrill Act, the U.S. had become the quantitative leader in technical education." Today, the Land-Grant system incorporates 74 U.S. colleges and universities, including the original state/district institutions authorized under the 1862 Act and 18 historically black institutions added by Congress in 1890. More recently, in 1994, the land grant system was expanded to include 33 American Indian colleges.
According to the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, its member institutions "enroll more than 3.5 million undergraduate students and 1.1 million graduate students, employ more than 645,000 faculty members, and conduct nearly two-thirds of all federally-funded academic research, totaling more than $34 billion." The land-grant institutions also award approximately 70 percent of the nation's engineering degrees.
Most of the original land-grant schools are public institutions, although there are two private institutions within the state land-grant system — Cornell and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The oldest land-grant institution is Rutgers University, founded in 1766, which was designated by New Jersey as its land-grant institution in 1864. The first new land-grant institution created under the Morrill Act was Kansas State University in 1863. Today, the largest Land-Grant program is the University of California, which enrolls over 230,000 students on nine campuses, and whose graduates include 91 current members of the National Academy of Engineering.
The legacy of the land grant institutions reflects their educational mission, which seeks a balance between teaching, research, and extension. Land grant engineering graduates include Nobel Laureates and business leaders, inventors and entrepreneurs, public servants and others who have major contributions to American life, one notable example being the first man on the moon, Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong, who earned his aerospace engineering degree from Purdue University.
Four currently serving Members of Congress are engineering graduates of land-grant institutions. Rep. Joe Barton of Texas is a licensed professional engineer and holds an industrial engineering degree from Texas A&M University. Rep. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico is a University of Missouri graduate with a mechanical engineering degree. Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia holds a civil engineering degree from Purdue University. Rep. Pete Stark of Florida earned a general engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The list of technical advances and research contributions attributable to the land-grant institutions across the multiple disciplines of engineering is too long to recite here, but those contributions have helped establish the United States as an industrial nation and world leader, by providing the skilled engineers, new technologies, and emphasis on technology transfer and extension that helped build the growing nation.
To celebrate the 150th Anniversary of President Lincoln's signing of the Morrill Land-Grant Act, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) and its member institutions have organized a year-long schedule of events and activities including a National Convocation held on June 26 in Washington.
As part of the Sesquicentennial anniversary, many of the Land-Grant Institutions also participated as exhibitors in the Smithsonian's Folk Life Festival (27 June-July 8), held each year on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Several used their exhibits to highlight their engineering and technology-related activities, including Oregon State (clean energy technology), University of Maryland (robotics), University of Illinois (technology for the disabled), the University of Indiana (computing and communities), and the University of Tennessee (Solar House).
Today, the Land-Grant universities face numerous challenges, not the least of which are budget constraints and declining state support for higher education. However, prospects for the future of the Land-Grant system appear bright. Higher education remains the key that unlocks the door of opportunity for individuals in American society. And the Land-Grants, and especially their engineering programs, have shown the ability to innovate and reinvent themselves as necessary to meet new challenges. Or as noted at the 75th anniversary of the Morrill Act by Alfred Anderson, president of the American Association of Land-Grant Colleges and Universities, "The future of land-grant colleges will be determined by the nature of the problems which come up in the areas they serve."
For more information on the Morrill Act Sesquicentennial Anniversary Celebration, visit http://www.aplu.org/page.aspx?pid=2185.
For additional reading:
An Act Donating Public Lands To the Several States and Territories Which May Provide Colleges For the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanical Arts, Thirty-Seventh Congress, 2d Session, Chap. CXXX, p. 503 et. al. (2 July 1862). Available on-line at: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=012/llsl012.db&recNum=534
Morrill Act's Contribution to Engineering's Foundation, by Daniel E. Williams, Ph.D., P.E., The Bent of Tau Beta Pi (Spring 2009), pp. 15-20. Available on-line at: http://www.tbp.org/pages/publications/Bent/Features/Sp09Williams.pdf
"Justin Smith Morrill and The Politics and Legacy of the Land-Grant College Acts" by Craig L. LaMay, in Lawrence K. Grossman and Newton N. Minnow, editors, A Digital Gift to the Nation: Fulfilling the Promise of the Digital and Information Age, pp. 73-95. Washington, D.C.: The Century Foundation, April 2001). Available on-line at: http://www.community-wealth.org/_pdfs/articles-publications/universities/article-la-may.pdf