Higher education in America was once a luxury for the privileged. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln changed that when he signed the Morrill Act, which established the nation’s land-grant universities and opened doors of higher education to more Americans.
The act directed funding to agriculture, engineering and mechanical arts education, helping build the infrastructure that has kept us strong and helps feed the world today.
This year we mark the 150th anniversary of the land-grant university system. We celebrate the advances the act provided. Today the U.S. has a safe, secure food supply, a well-educated population, vibrant centers of innovation and discovery, and hands-on local education enriches citizens’ lives.
The act also helped grow a dynamic, successful middle class in America that is the backbone of our society, workforce and future.
New challenges ahead
Everyday we face new challenges. The population is growing, but available land to grow food is not. Our environment is suffering, and ways to protect it must be found. America is slipping behind the world in science education, and higher education must be openly available now more than ever for us to compete.
The act embraced by President Lincoln 150 years ago is more important today than the day it was signed.
When delivering the Justin Morrill Lecture last week at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities conference, Kenneth G. Cassman, professor of agronomy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, outlined the perfect storm of problems that lies ahead. He contended that rising fuel and food costs reduces spendable income, which causes education levels to decrease and birth rates to rise, creating a cycle that threatens our ability to feed people.
Solutions to many of these challenges will be found in the classrooms, labs and programs of land-grant universities.
At the University of Georgia, we are breeding better crops that can produce higher yields with less water and less environmental impact. We are working to find a dependable supply of bio-based fuels to help solve our energy problems. And we are discovering ways to produce food using fewer chemicals and fertilizers.
The legacy and the future
The legacy of the Morrill Act is evident across generations of American families and the landscape of our agricultural promise.
Our system is the envy of many. Struggling countries often look squarely to our land-grant system as the solution to the problems that plague them. From Eastern Europe to Africa and Afghanistan, we’ve helped introduce the public educational system to promote a brighter future for us all.
We must now greet the next 150 years with the same vigor and dedication we gave the past 150 years. It requires renewed commitment to reliable funding, sound policy and partnerships that got us this far.
While today’s problems are more complex, so are the tools and technologies available to solve them. As we celebrate our successful past and remember the wisdom of President Lincoln, we will keep our sights set on developing the new innovations that will ensure a food-secure future.
(J. Scott Angle is dean and director of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and chairman of the APLU Board on Agriculture Assembly.)