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Celebrating the 125th Anniversary of the Morrill Act of 1890

Peter McPhersonPeter McPherson

When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law in 1862 to establish land-grant universities, our nation took an important step toward ensuring access to higher education was no longer just reserved for the elite. The law’s mission was to create institutions of higher education that would educate America’s citizenry, unlock discoveries that would transform its communities, and propel the country into a world leader in education and innovation.

While extremely successful, the initial law did not sufficiently secure this vision for all citizens. Almost three decades after the passage of the first Morrill Act, a second measure, the Morrill Act of 1890, aimed to further expand access to higher education and the promise of opportunities that accompany such an education. The Morrill Act of 1890 helped establish universities to provide higher education opportunities for African-Americans and others based on the idea that access to education was important for all. Today, 125 years later, there are 19 institutions designated as 1890 land-grant universities.

African-Americans, initially excluded from higher education altogether in some parts of the country and subsequently underserved, were finally offered postsecondary educational opportunity at universities founded through the Morrill Act of 1890. For the past 125 years these institutions, known collectively as the 1890 Universities, have provided African-Americans and others the opportunity to receive a quality, affordable postsecondary education.

U.S. Sen. Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, whose namesake 1862 Act advanced the belief that higher education should “be accessible to all, but especially to the sons of toil,” wanted to expand access even further. That African-Americans still lacked access to higher education, he said, was at odds with the foundational American value of equal opportunity. “Their advancement concerns us all,” he noted.

That mission of equal educational opportunity remains urgent. The work that the Morrill Act of 1890 set out to do — to provide an accessible, affordable and exceptional system of higher education for all Americans — is not yet complete. Today, some states don’t fully match federal funding for their 1890 universities’ agricultural and extension work as they do with their 1862 land-grant universities.

Through its Council of 1890 Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) continues to advance the cause of historically Black colleges and universities and extend the legacy of the second Morrill Act. With all 19 1890 Universities, this collaborative effort works to reinvigorate the promise of the second Morrill Act and magnify the positive impact these institutions have on their communities and country.

The 1890s are a cornerstone of the American system of higher education, and without sufficient investment in their mission, our nation’s entire system of public higher education is incomplete.

Their impact is profound. One hundred and twenty-five years after passage of the second Morrill Act, the 1890 Universities continue to bolster access to quality higher education for historically disadvantaged groups. Today, the 1890s educate more than 110,000 students annually while contributing cutting-edge research and engaging in significant community development. They award more than half of all agriculture, education, and physical and computer science degrees and nearly half of all engineering degrees earned by African-American students at land-grant universities.

The 1890s help meet a crucial need to educate more first-generation and low-income American college students.

At campuses across the country, the 1890 universities are making discoveries that improve the human condition throughout the world. Take research currently underway at Delaware State University. Researchers there are working on the genomic mapping of grains to reveal which seed varieties are needed to increase crop yields despite shifting environmental conditions that threaten to hamper global production. This research could prove indispensable as we work to feed a burgeoning global population that is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

At Georgia’s Fort Valley State University, meanwhile, researchers are working to improve energy efficiency in homes, lowering Americans’ dependence on fossil fuels and reducing a major budget item for low-income households. And at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, students and faculty are examining foodborne illnesses in research that could diminish the incidence of foodborne illness not just in America but across the world.

Sen. Morrill had a vision when he championed the creation of historically Black universities back in 1890. He wanted the Morrill Act of 1890 to extend access to higher education to generations of African-Americans. While the 1890s undoubtedly face challenges today, 125 years after their founding they continue to reach underserved people and communities while advancing research that will help meet the world’s development needs in the 21st century. On this 125th anniversary, we honor Sen. Morrill and the students, leadership, faculty and staff at our 1890 institutions by recognizing their vast accomplishments and working together toward ensuring many more great achievements in the next 125 years.

Peter McPherson is president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

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