What might be the least-understood and most under-appreciated legislation ever enacted by Congress is being spotlighted this year. The object of the nationwide celebration is the 150th anniversary of passage of the Morrill Act. Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln during the midst of the Civil War, it laid the groundwork for the establishment of a series of colleges - "land-grant colleges" that now stretch from coast to coast. The 77 American institutions that were created by the Morrill Act - Texas A&M University proudly among them - have had big roles in bolstering the nation and literally helping change the world.
At their most basic level, universities that operate under the Morrill Act's provisions have a three-fold mission: teaching, research and service. Teaching and research are the key functions, just as they are at numerous other colleges and universities. At land-grant institutions, however, those two functions also contribute to services that directly benefit the public.
How the three-fold mission unfolds at those institutions can be complex and contribute to the lack of understanding.
Many Americans tend to think land-grant institutions are "ag schools." They are, but they are much more. Others, particularly in earlier times, thought land-grant schools were primarily "for kids from families in the lower portions of the socio-economic spectrum." While there is fallacy in that assessment, it is true that land-grant colleges have provided an unprecedented level of access to first-generation college students such as me - young men and women who are the first in their families to attend college.
Why so much misconception about the land-grant concept and the institutions founded under its principles? Partly, it stems from the "land grant" term. It relates to the federal government initiating a program - back when the nation was in its early development with vast unused acreage - to give large blocks of land to states as sources of funds to create colleges emphasizing fields of study that would stimulate the development of natural and human resources.
Here's one of several definitions: "A land-grant college or university is an institution that has been designated by its state legislature or Congress to receive the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. The original mission of these institutions, as set forth in the first Morrill Act, was to teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanical arts as well as classical studies so that members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education."
Institutions founded under the 1862 Morrill Act include such highly regarded schools as Ohio State University, University of Florida and, in the Lone Star State, Texas A&M University, among others. Many have come to be considered "flagships" alongside "state universities" such as The University of Texas at Austin. Some universities, such as Ohio State, have both "land-grant" and "state university" designations. Texas, considering its size, diverse geographic regions and other factors, operates a system that separates the two types of "flagship" institutions, with each also having related statewide systems.
Land-grant misconceptions are compounded further because almost all the institutions founded under the 1862 Morrill Act subsequently dropped "agricultural and mechanical" from their names. Oklahoma State University is a good example nearby.
The Morrill Act of 1890 expanded the land-grant concept to create a network of "historically black" universities. They include Southern University in Louisiana and Texas' Prairie View A&M University, part of The Texas A&M University System.
What is the modern-day land-grant prototype? A good case could be made for Texas A&M, with its 50,000 students and yearly research expenditures that exceed $700 million - both figures that place it in the vanguard nationally. By most determinations, Texas A&M is unsurpassed in remaining true to the land-grant mission. Its College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is among the largest academic units of its type in the nation in enrollment and in providing leaders in varied agribusiness fields. Its related state agencies, Texas AgriLife Research, Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Texas Forest Service and Texas Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, provide diversified services unmatched nationwide, with a statewide presence to conduct research vital to its economy and render services to both rural and urban Texans.
Likewise, The Dwight Look College of Engineering - engineering generally equating to the "mechanical arts" noted in the Morrill Act - is among the largest of its type in the nation, producing thousands of graduates in demand in a variety of fields. Its related agencies - the Texas Engineering Experiment Station, Texas Engineering Extension Service and Texas Transportation Institute - provide vital services, be they in high-tech research that can translate into economically viable patents and inventions that can lead to start-up companies, or in life-saving highway innovations and specialized training for thousands, such as volunteer firemen in small communities throughout Texas.
The "classics studies" aspect has been embraced and expanded at Texas A&M through programs at the "college" and "school" levels in liberal arts, science, geosciences, architecture, education and government and public service - the latter via its newest unit, the Bush School of Government and Public Service. The university also entered into the medical arena via its College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the College of Medicine, which is now part of the Texas A&M University System Health Science Center.
Carrying out the "military tactics" aspects of the land-grant concept, Texas A&M's Corps of Cadets continues to be the largest uniformed student organization in the nation and produces more officers for the armed forces than any institution except for 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 leadership experiences and discipline that will serve them well in the nation's workforce after graduation.
Texas A&M has also been in the forefront in applying the land-grant concept in two other key areas: the sea, as in focusing on ways to develop coastal resources, and in space, as in helping with space-exploration and related endeavors.
The result: a series of federally designated sea- and space-grant colleges, with Texas A&M among the first in both categories.
Bottom line: Land-grant translates into teaching, research and service - teaching and research at the highest levels and service applied at the grass roots to benefit the public good.
-R. Bowen Loftin is president of Texas A&M University.