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At 150, land-grant public universities struggle to return to roots

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A hopelessly divided country with huge military obligations. A need for more educated workers at a time when only the privileged could afford the full price of college.

These circumstances may evoke the present day, but they were actually the backdrop to the little-known but hugely influential innovation 150 years ago that gave rise to dozens of America’s best-known public universities as a way of expanding higher education to the working class.

The anniversary of the Morrill Act, establishing more than 70 so-called “land-grant” universities—including some of America’s biggest and best known—comes just as advocates are warning that cuts in support, and resulting tuition increases, threaten the ideal of broad access to U.S. public universities.

“We’re in danger of chipping away at the effectiveness of the commitment to access and affordability to higher education for the broad mass of the American people, absolutely,” said Daniel Fogel, a former president of the University of Vermont and co-editor of the newly published Precipice or Crossroads: Where America’s Great Public Universities Stand and Where They Are Going Midway through Their Second Century.

When Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act on July 2, 1862, the Civil War was raging. But the law, named for the Vermont congressman who introduced it, set aside federal land to be used or sold to establish public universities in every northern state, to educate the “sons of toil” in practical subjects such as agricultural science. After the war, it was extended to the South, and, later, to U.S. territories and possessions.

Justin Morrill, who served as a U.S. Senator (R-Vt.) from 1867 until his death in 1898.

Few people outside higher education have heard of the Morrill Act, but it helped establish more than 70 of what are now among the nation’s most prominent universities—mostly public, but also private and quasi-public—including Auburn, Cornell, MIT, Purdue, Rutgers, Virginia Tech, the University of California system, and the universities of Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, plus Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania state universities.

The idea was to make college practical and democratic, when at the time it consisted largely of the classics taught to the elite in the original Greek and Latin.

But today, in yet another polarized, financially unstable time, state appropriations per student to public universities have fallen by almost 25 percent in the last 10 years. That has sent tuition up an average of nearly 6 percent per year above the rate of inflation during that time. Where states covered two-thirds of the cost of education at public universities just 20 years ago, they now pay only one third, and students and their families are having to pick up the difference.

In a survey conducted last December for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 87 percent of public-university presidents and provosts said they fear that access for low-income and nonwhite students is being jeopardized by budget cuts and the resulting price increases. (The Gates Foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)

“It’s amazingly prescient how the same principles of the Morrill Act are exactly what we need to capture today—the notion that there was a contract between universities and the community to provide opportunity for the next generation,” said Nancy Cantor, chancellor and president of Syracuse University, who writes and speaks often about the 1862 law and formerly was chancellor of the land-grant University of Illinois.

Land-grant campuses collectively enroll more than 4.6 million students and have 645,000 faculty members. They conduct two-thirds of the nation’s academic research and charge a third as much as comparable private universities, even after years of price increases.

Yet not only have state appropriations to these institutions fallen; there’s increasing concern about continuing federal funding for the research they do, their campuses need hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs, their faculty earn 25 percent less than faculty at private universities, and they spend one-fifth as much per student.

“We need another Justin Morrill,” said Dennis Delaney, a former state senator in the sponsoring congressman’s native Vermont. “We need someone with a lot of vision to get back to the idea of 150 years ago, that higher education should be as democratized as possible. And we’re not only slipping away from that, we’re running away from it.”

Morrill picked up the idea of higher education for the working class from Jonathan Baldwin Turner, a Yale-educated farmer, newspaper editor and college professor in Illinois. Private colleges, which were largely sectarian, resisted it, but after the Morrill Act was passed, they sluggishly began to add modern languages, the natural and social sciences, and professional studies to their own classical curricula.

His intention, Morrill told the Vermont state legislature later, was “to offer an opportunity in every state for a liberal and larger education to larger numbers, not merely to those destined to sedentary professions, but to those much needing higher instruction for the world’s business, for the industrial pursuits and professions of life.”

The anniversary will be commemorated with a conference in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. Microsoft chairman and philanthropist Bill Gates is scheduled to be the keynote speaker.

“This is a good moment to take stock,” said Peter McPherson, a former president of Michigan State who now heads the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “These issues have been building. It’s a good time to crystallize what we need to do.”

That includes persuading states to restore their support for public higher education, McPherson said. “No way can they just back away from it, as the trend has been,” he said. But he added that U.S. universities also have to do more to control their costs.

“We’re at another one of those tipping-point moments,” said Cantor. But if a Congress fighting a civil war could pass the Morrill Act, she said, “I don’t think the fact that, today, Washington is so divided should stop us from recommitting to it.”

This article also appeared on the College Inc. blog of The Washington Post on June 22, 2012.

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