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Land-grant schools help feed the world

Morrill Act created system of universities dedicated to aiding agriculture, science


Capital Press

KAHLOTUS, Wash. -- When Jim Moore started college in the late 1950s, he didn't plan to stick around campus for very long.

He told his adviser at Washington State University that he planned to attend for two years and he wanted only agriculture classes, none of those "B.S." prerequisites.

After two years, though, Moore changed his tune and decided to finish his four-year degree.

"I didn't know near as much as I thought I knew," he said.

Decades later, he remains in regular contact with the university and its researchers, picking their brains about issues that arise.

Moore, now 74, is exactly the sort of person Vermont native Justin Smith Morrill had in mind in 1862 when, at his urging, Congress passed the Morrill Act, the law creating land-grant universities. President Abraham Lincoln signed it into law on July 2, 1862.

Moore, who graduated from Washington State University in 1960, is among the millions of students who have attended land-grant universities since they began 150 years ago. Since that time, land-grant universities ranging from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Ivy League Cornell University have performed cutting-edge research in a vast array of topics. Every top agricultural university in the nation is a land-grant institution.

"It's the best thing that's ever happened for the farmer," Moore said of land-grant universities. "If we didn't have all that research, we wouldn't be where we are today. I'm not saying we'd be in the horse-and-buggy days, but we probably wouldn't have the yields we're having, the technology we understand today."

Act opened doors

The promise of the Morrill Act was to ensure that every state would have a public university focused on developing the talents of its citizens, said Daniel Mark Fogel, a University of Vermont professor who edited a book marking the law's 150th anniversary.

Before that, "only elite, wealthy, white men went to college, and the land-grant act meant to open this up to ordinary people, the industrial classes," Fogel said.

The Morrill Act also created institutions focused on practical sciences, primarily agriculture and engineering, Fogel said.

When Congress passed the Morrill Act, it granted the states 30,000 acres of federal land to be sold. The proceeds were used to help establish the colleges. Succeeding laws helped fund later land-grant universities.

At the time, there was very little scientific agriculture in the United States, said Ed Ray, president of Oregon State University, itself a land-grant institution.

"People would farm land, deplete all the nutrients in the soil and then the land would be no good for farming, so then they wanted more land," Ray said. "Whether it's Thomas Jefferson, George Washington or any of the founding fathers, they were always looking for more land because of the nutrient depletion."

The Morrill Act was the driving force to get people to think about sustaining soils, increasing yields and preventing blight and infestations, Ray said.

Fogel said the land-grant universities' public mission remains the same today -- to be accessible to all Americans and prepare them to contribute to the economic well-being of their nation.

When the act was passed, the majority of the U.S. population lived in rural areas and worked in agriculture. Today, agriculture represents less than 3 percent of the population and 2 percent of gross domestic product, Fogel said.

But the importance of agricultural research has increased with the change, he said.

"Everybody knows we have to more than double food production by 2050 or food prices will spike and the world will be much less safe than it is today," he said. "Obviously agriculture's a life-and-death issue for the planet, and it always has been."

Challenges lie ahead

The nation's 110 land-grant universities today have a combined enrollment of 1.8 million full- and part-time students -- up nearly 16 percent in the last 10 years.

Despite that success, Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, sees challenges ahead.

As recession-burdened state budgets have stagnated, legislators have curbed university funding. McPherson believes the states must return per-student funding to historical levels. He also believes student numbers will continue to grow and universities will change with the times.

"I think we'll figure out how to reduce the education costs through technology and other means," he said, noting that land-grant universities such as Virginia Tech deliver many classes entirely online. "They say they can cut costs by 20 percent or so. They also believe the learning outcomes are stronger as well."

Duane Nellis, president of the University of Idaho, said a major advantage of a land-grant public university is lower tuition compared with private universities. His university is one of the lowest-cost four-year institutions in the nation, he said.

Most land-grant universities have increased tuition, but Nellis believes the earning power that comes with a college degree still makes it a good investment for students -- and the state.

He said the University of Idaho's state-appropriated budget is up 4 percent this year after recession-forced cuts totaling 25 percent the previous three years.

"They've recognized how important the University of Idaho is as far as economic development and Idaho's competitiveness," he said of legislators.

Universities adjust

As state funding was reduced, more universities were forced to rely on tuition dollars, Fogel said. That has meant many university admissions policies lean toward students who can pay full tuition. That alone is a threat to the democratic ideals that underlie land-grant universities, he said.

As the son of a mechanic, Ralph Cavalieri paid $25 per quarter when he was an undergraduate student at the University of California-Berkeley, a land-grant institution.

"You look at the prices ... people are being expected to pay, and I'm not sure the son of a mechanic could afford to go," said Cavalieri, now director of the agricultural research center at Washington State University.

Nicola Elliott is a junior at the University of Idaho majoring in animal science. The Emmett, Idaho, native hopes to pursue a master's degree in animal genetics or nutrition.

The cost of tuition has gone up in the two years since Elliott started, from roughly $2,800 a semester when she began to $3,100 a semester, but she said the scholarships she has earned have helped to the point where she doesn't have to pay any tuition this year.

"I did look at a few private universities, but even with scholarships and financial aid, it would have been pretty difficult to attend without going into a lot of debt," Elliott said.

Despite limited resources, there remains widespread recognition of the importance of land-grant universities, Fogel said.

"They're doing absolutely great work," he said. "We need more Norman Borlaugs, obviously, if we're going to feed the world well enough not to have terminal political instability."

The late Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, attended a land-grant university, having received his master's degree and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, Fogel said.


Public-private partnerships are one way land-grant universities are adapting to tight economic times. Company and university researchers create a synergy when they work together, proponents say.

But with that advantage comes a concern that public institutions are allowing the companies to profit from university research, said John Hammel, dean of the University of Idaho's College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. To prevent that, universities have to maintain so-called "firewalls" between the two sectors to protect intellectual property and proprietary knowledge, he said.

"I think you're going to see more public-private relationships to help support the burden of the cost of research," he said.

Barbara Allen-Diaz, vice president of the University of California's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said researchers there will continue to work with agricultural partners.

"The university needs to be responsive to agriculture, farmers' and ranchers' needs, and they have to have the resources in order to be responsive to those needs," she said.

Harvest of knowledge

Harvest is over on Jim Moore's farm. Wheat yields were a bit below average overall, although prices are high. He expects to begin seeding the new crop in early September, after rod-weeding the fields for Russian thistle.

Moore said he hopes to see land-grant universities continue to pioneer agricultural research and education long into the future.

"We need that technology coming at you all the time," he said. "I would hope in the next 150 years, (land-grant universities) can progress as far as they've progressed in the last 150 years, in the ability to understand plant diseases and feed the world."


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