In his monumental 1963 book The Uses of the University, Clark Kerr, the architect of the esteemed University of California system, noted that “Two great impacts, beyond all other forces, have molded the modern American university system and made it distinctive … The first was the land-grant movement. Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862. This act set the tone for the development of American universities, both public and private, for most of the ensuing hundred years. It was one of the most seminal pieces of legislation ever enacted.”
With the Morrill Act’s 150th anniversary now little more than a year away (July 2, 2012), and with Penn State being one of the earliest land-grant colleges, it’s time to celebrate the occasion. More precisely, it’s time to think about what the Morrill Act has done for American higher education and the nation and to ponder what lies ahead for our land-grant universities.
That’s why Penn State is coming out of the box with an academic conference on the land-grant college movement a year ahead of when the rest of the nation begins to do likewise. “The Legacy and the Promise: 150 Years of Land-Grant Universities,” will be held June 22–24, 2011, at The Nittany Lion Inn at University Park.
The intent of this “year-ahead-of-schedule” anniversary conference is to generate and harvest scholarly papers on land-grant history. The best of them will be published in the 2012 edition of Perspectives on the History of Higher Education, a scholarly journal headquartered at Penn State and edited by Roger L. Geiger, Distinguished Professor of Higher Education at our alma mater. Publication should coincide with the July 2012 anniversary.
In fact, Professor Geiger (my dissertation advisor from long ago) and I are serving as conference co-chairs. The event is being sponsored by a number of Penn State organizations: The Penn State Alumni Association, the Office of the Provost, Penn State Outreach, the College of Agricultural Sciences, the College of Education and the Center for the Study of Higher Education.
The conference program already boasts more than 20 scholars and administrators from across the nation. Keynote speakers include Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the former president of Michigan State, and Graham Spanier, our president for nearly 16 years, now regarded as one of the most influential leaders in global higher education.
This conference has got me trying to answer a historical question that has bedeviled me for years. My co-presenter, Peter Moran, a doctoral candidate in Penn State’s top-rated Higher Education Program, and I are researching the details of what happened after Pennsylvania’s great Civil War governor, Andrew Curtin (as in Curtin Road on campus), signed the legislation passed by the General Assembly designating the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania as the sole beneficiary of the land-grant funds for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Curtin signed this act on April 1, 1863, only eight months after Lincoln signed the Morrill Act and only three months before the Battle of Gettysburg.
When Curtin signed the act, Penn State instantly became the Commonwealth’s sole land-grant college. The rest is history. End of story, right?
Not quite. Other colleges in the Commonwealth flared with jealousy over Penn State’s designation and, with the help of their local legislators, introduced new bills designed to reverse our alma mater’s legal claim and share in the land-grant’s bounty—either in whole or in part.
When the General Assembly convened in early 1864, it had before it petitions from a half-dozen colleges asking for a piece of the land-grant endowment. For Pennsylvania, the federal land-grant amounted to 780,000 acres of public lands in territories west of the Mississippi. The idea was to sell the land and use the proceeds to establish an endowment that would support the land-grant college in perpetuity. In the competition were the institutions that in time would become Allegheny College, Bucknell, Gettysburg, Pitt and the now defunct Polytechnic College of the State of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Penn State’s great founding president, Evan Pugh, hit the roof. “That literary institutions should, with such undignified haste, grasp at resources (secured for the endowment of Industrial Colleges to which they had not the slightest legitimate claim), is a melancholy illustration of the terrible extremities to which they are driven in the struggle for existence.”
Pugh fought the good fight. He traveled to Harrisburg, pamphleteered in the college’s behalf and staged a gala dinner in the main building so members of the General Assembly could see the college for themselves.
The strain of all of this was taking its toll. Pugh’s health was not good. Ten months earlier, he had broken his arm in a buggy accident and, despite reconstructive surgery, he was never quite the same. On the morning of April 22, weak from exhaustion, Pugh wrote a howling jeremiad from his desk in the lecture hall. Pugh wrote: “The effect of the bill is virtually to squander the entire proceeds for all time to come of the magnificent grant of public land from Congress to the State for the purpose of Industrial Education.”
As Pugh wrote, he was seized by a violent chill, followed by a fever—typhoid fever. He went to his bed, slipped into a coma and died a week later. He was just 36 years old.
Imagine in those last conscious moments Pugh’s frustration and anger, seeing everything he had built being stolen away.
Fortunately, the bill never made it through the legislature. But Penn State’s land-grant designation would be contested for the ensuing decade. And the institution would begin its long backward slide, abdicating its land-grant mission and devolving into a backwoods classical college. By 1879, the Pennsylvania State College—renamed in 1874 to more accurately reflect the mission of a traditional collegiate institution—was being investigated by the General Assembly and was almost closed for good.
We know that bills contesting Penn State’s exclusive land-grant designation were introduced in session after session of the General Assembly for a number of years, into the 1870s. What institutions were doing this, and were there repeat offenders? What were their motivations and arguments? How long did this process last? How did it finally end? Was the investigation by the General Assembly prodded by these envious institutions?
And, if this was the case in Pennsylvania, did similar political battles ensue in other states? We know the land-grant designation was usually contested in state after state. But after the battle had been won and the dust had cleared, did this process of challenge after challenge occur in other states across the country?
We won’t try to answer that larger question. We’ll stick to sorting out the mess in Pennsylvania, and suggest to our fellow researchers that herein lies a potentially rich vein of research in land-grant college history.
Well, this is just one of a score of fascinating papers that will be presented as we explore “The Legacy and the Promise: 150 Years of Land-Grant Universities.” Take a look at the agenda and join us if you like.
For the Past and For the Future,
Roger L. Williams ’73, ’75g, ’88g