One hundred and fifty years ago, on July 2, 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law a bill that would have a profound impact on our nation’s history.
Proposed by Sen. Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, the act that carries the senator’s name provided states with 30,000 acres of federal land for each senator and representative in Congress to be used to establish educational institutions “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts … in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”
The land-grant university concept, as framed in the 1862 Morrill Act, the 1887 Hatch Act and the 1914 Smith-Lever Act, defined three basic mission areas: teaching (learning), research (discovery) and extension (engagement). Born in an agrarian time, the original land-grant idea was focused on making higher education available to the broader public; on research addressing the problems of farmers, rural residents and industry; and on ensuring that the insights developed through that research were made available.
There are now 110 “land-grant universities” in the U.S. They enroll 1.8 million and graduate 370,000 students annually. Land-grant universities make up 2 percent of total U.S. degree-granting institutions but award 32 percent of our nation’s engineering degrees.
Much has changed in our society since these visionary laws were passed: There are far more public and private institutions of higher learning; farmers represent a very small fraction of our total U.S. population; the interpretation of “the mechanic arts” now encompasses fields that range from machines to nano-sensors for health care; billions of private-sector dollars are invested annually in university research; and technology has dramatically changed the way people globally communicate and access information.
However, these changes have only enhanced the importance of the land-grant missions of learning, discovery and engagement. A post-secondary education has never been more important; purpose-driven research addressing society’s most challenging problems is fundamental to our world’s future; and engagement with the many audiences of a modern university is a cornerstone of the basic idea of relevance.
Being a land-grant university means providing vital services to the people of our state. But the mission of the 21st-century land-grant is bigger than the state it calls home.
The 21st-century land-grant remembers its service to state and has a strong in-state student enrollment, but also embraces the importance of educating the “best and the brightest” students, regardless of where they come from.
The 21st-century land-grant’s focus extends far beyond “agriculture and the mechanic arts” to encompass science, technology, veterinary medicine, health sciences, management and the liberal arts, among other disciplines.
Engagement – perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the land-grant university – is now a deep, two-way relationship with stakeholders ranging from Fortune 500 companies to inner-city food pantries; from Indiana farmers to villagers in sub-Saharan Africa.
This relationship helps ensure that our learning and discovery initiatives are focused, relevant and impactful.
Examples of Purdue’s engagement mission include providing the foundation for Indiana’s implantable medical device industry, developing affordable and practical utility vehicles for the developing world, giving Indiana farmers and community leaders research-based information when the weather turns extreme; and bringing science-based project curricula to more than 200,000 Indiana 4-H youth.
As Indiana’s land-grant university, at Purdue we are re-inventing the land-grant concept for the 21st century. Timeless ideas such as building human capital, research focused on our world’s most important problems, and deep engagement with those we serve provide a foundation for excellence that will serve Purdue – and the people of Indiana, our nation and our world – for the next 150 years.