America this year celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862 and marking the nation’s commitment to higher education and upward mobility for its citizens. This historic piece of legislation created what are known as land-grant universities, one of which is Texas A&M University.
Monday marks the actual 150th anniversary of the signing of the historic document.
Sponsored by Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont, the Morrill bill was first proposed in 1857, when much of America was an untamed frontier and the division of land was a way for the federal government to establish direction for the burgeoning nation.
The act provided that the federal government grant each state 30,000 acres of public land for each of its senators and representatives in Congress. In turn, the states were charged with using the land to create an endowment to establish and maintain public institutions of higher learning.
The Morrill land grants are credited with laying the foundation for the country’s system of state colleges and universities, bringing higher education to millions of students.
The land-grant institutions were designed to emphasize agriculture, mechanics, military tactics and classical studies, opening the opportunity for higher education to farmers and other working-class people who may have been previously excluded. First-generation college students – those who are the first in their families to go to college – have been given access to higher education in unprecedented numbers, thanks to the land-grant system.
Today, there are 77 land-grant institutions, including other major universities such as Cornell, Nebraska, Ohio State, Purdue and Rutgers. In Texas, only Prairie View A&M University joins Texas A&M in this distinction.
“Universities that operate under the land-grant mandate have a simple three-fold mission: teaching, research and service,” says Texas A&M University President R. Bowen Loftin.
Loftin says a good case could be made for Texas A&M as the model of a modern-day land-grant institution. “Texas A&M has remained true to the land-grant mission in an unsurpassed manner – and has even maintained a version of its original name.” Almost all the other institutions founded under the Morrill Act later removed the “Agricultural and Mechanical” (A&M) portion from their names.
Loftin notes that Texas A&M is a national leader in agricultural and life sciences education, both in enrollment, in which it ranks first, and in providing leaders in agribusiness fields, while its related state agencies – Texas AgriLife Research and the Texas AgriLife Extension Service – provide an array of services unsurpassed by any in the nation.
As for the mechanical aspect, Loftin says the Dwight Look College of Engineering is the largest of its type in the nation and produces thousands of graduates who are in high demand in a variety of fields. “Its related state agencies – the Texas Engineering Experiment Station, Texas Engineering Extension Service and the Texas Transportation Institute – also provide vital services.”
The university also entered into the medical area with its College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and the College of Medicine, which is now part of the Texas A&M Health Science Center.
The classical studies are also fundamental to any land-grant institution and at Texas A&M, programs such as liberal arts, geosciences, architecture, education, government and public service continue to be embraced and expanded, according to Loftin – the latter via the university’s newest unit, the Bush School.
The military tactics aspects of the land-grant concept are alive and well at Texas A&M. The Corps of Cadets is the largest uniformed student organization on any campus in the country, with the exception of the service academies, and it also provides more officers for the military than any other institution, other than the service academies. “It also serves as a leadership laboratory for young men and women who do not plan to enter the military but want the training and discipline that will service them well after graduation in the nation’s workforce,” Loftin states.
Aggies, along with millions of other college students in land-grant universities around the nation, have the Morrill Act to thank for putting higher education within reach of all citizens, regardless of socioeconomic status, he adds.
“During a time of social upheaval and a bloody Civil War, the Morrill Act of 1862 was a source of pride and a gift to future generations of Americans,” Loftin concludes.
Media Contact: Lesley Henton, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications; (979) 845-5591