Our public heritage

What does being a land-grant university really mean?

Editorial board

Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the passage of the first Morrill Land-Grant Act, which established public universities across the United States. It is easy to throw this history around rhetorically, but what does it really mean to be a land-grant university in 2010?

In brief, land-grant colleges were founded “in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.” Of course, when we talk about founding principles, it is dangerous to slip into an orthodox originalism.

Most students at the University of Minnesota do not need to be taught “military tactics” âÄî one of the goals of the original Morrill Act. We must always recognize that what was right in our founding context will not necessarily be right in the present, and above all we must allow for the possibility to improve and adapt.

Reexamining our raison dâÄôêtre can provide a crucial clarity in times of transition like these. When we invoke the land-grant heritage, we recall a time when Americans had limited access to higher education and when knowledge was considerably less democratic than it is on Wikipedia.

Land-grant universities were also a revolutionary recognition of higher education as an accessible public good âÄî one that the government should provide. This idea linked practical and classical knowledge, rural and urban agriculture and public well-being. It was the antithesis of âÄòivory towerâÄô academia.

Surely, the University must innovate and adapt in the decade ahead or risk losing its significance. Still, in a recent appearance on Minnesota Public Radio, President Bob Bruininks cited the “extraordinary responsibility” they entail. We agree that looking ahead, the land-grant ideal is still worth aspiring to.