Ky. Voices: Time for UK to celebrate its educational mission

John Thelin is a professor in educational policy studies at the University of Kentucky
John Thelin is a professor in educational policy studies at the University of Kentucky

The University of Kentucky celebrates in a big way. What better example than recent campus and community festivities for the NCAA basketball championship? Now that basketball season is over, it's time for UK to look forward to honoring another landmark event: the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act.

What's so important about the Morrill Act? UK emphasizes its "land grant mission" to explain its roles. The Morrill Act provided the funding and philosophy for the nation's land grant colleges. Without the Morrill Act, there would be no UK.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the bill approved by Congress that had been drafted by Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont. Morrill worked for years to persuade his congressional colleagues to approve this innovative proposal for federal support of higher education.

The Morrill Act brought "A&M" into the American vocabulary. It usually refers to "Agriculture & Mechanics." The "M" also includes "Military." Its definition of "useful arts" included not only engineering, agriculture, extension services, civilian leadership in the armed forces, nutrition and home economics —but also the liberal arts and sciences.

All are now familiar and famous as part of UK and as part of over 100 campuses nationwide, formalized as the Association of Public Land Grant Universities, a consortium founded in 1887.

The heritage of the Morrill Act often is misunderstood. The federal government did not give grants of land to state colleges as a campus site. Rather, state governments were given an allotment of lands in the unsettled western territories, with each state receiving 30,000 acres per congressional seat.

A state could keep the proceeds of the land sale, so long as it agreed to use the funds to create affordable, accessible courses of college study.

The Morrill Act was deliberate in its goal of extending higher education to the people. But it left to each state exactly how to do so. Some state legislatures opted to rely on established colleges to be the home of land grant programs.

In New Hampshire, the choice was Dartmouth. In Connecticut, it was Yale. Kentucky created an interesting institution known as "Kentucky University" — a hybrid that used historic Transylvania as its base.

Only later would one find the creation of such new state colleges we know today as the University of Connecticut, the University of New Hampshire and the University of Kentucky (originally known as Kentucky State College).

Two of the most historic and successful institutions are private: Cornell University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology today are often overlooked as part of the land grant legacy past and present.

The great state land-grant universities of the Midwest started slowly but eventually gained support from their citizens and state legislatures. Universities such as Wisconsin, Michigan State, Minnesota, Iowa State, Purdue and Ohio State made access and excellence compatible and became symbols of state pride.

The original land-grant act provided some expanded access for women, as most institutions were co-educational. Despite such progressive innovations, women did not quickly gain full equity as students or faculty.

The Morrill Act represented both the strengths and weaknesses of 19th century America. It allowed for accommodation of racial segregation in public higher education in its 1890 provisions. A state was allowed to maintain an all-white land grant campus so long as it agreed to build a separate historically black campus. Sixteen states, ranging from Delaware to Oklahoma (including Kentucky and the founding of Kentucky State University) opted for this approach that institutionalized "separate but unequal" in which the historically black public universities and their students got the short end of the funding stick.

Universities across the nation have started celebrating the Morrill Act anniversary. UK's College of Agriculture is preparing to host the National Agricultural Alumni and Development Association in June with a tribute to land-grant origins. If you want to see the Morrill Act as living history, take a look at UK's front lawn as ROTC units go about their drills, alternating with civil engineering students surveying the grounds. Then walk by the College of Engineering and over to the College of Agriculture. The land grant legacy is, indeed, at the heart of the UK heritage.