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from the dean
As Relevant TodayDean Scott Smith

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. Our great American land-grant university system was created by this Civil War-era legislation. Historians often rank this among the most positive and long-lasting of American inventions.

The Morrill Act created in every state at least one public university with a mission that included increasing public access to higher education and blending practical agricultural and mechanical studies with the liberal arts and basic sciences. Legislation that followed over the next five decades added research and extension to that mission; thus these universities became powerful drivers for the application of research discoveries to benefit all Americans. Throughout the 20th century, the land-grant system grew through strong partnerships among the national and state governments and local communities.

Initially, the land-grant universities were charged with focusing on agriculture and mechanical arts, but like the University of Kentucky, most have now evolved to become comprehensive institutions. The nation has changed dramatically, and most appropriately, the land-grant mission has changed with it. Even our own College of Agriculture continues to expand the scope and diversity of both our stakeholders and the programs we offer, now touching almost any issue or opportunity linked to agriculture, food, and the human environment.

But now, 15 decades after the Morrill Act, is the mission still as relevant and important as it was in the 19th century? Is the land-grant system still important to the nation?

Some observers wonder if our land-grant values are being eroded. Access to higher education is threatened by rising student costs. Public support of research and education must compete with other needs in a difficult economy. Some emerging nations are making greater investments in science and education than is America.

Certainly, the needs remain as relevant today as they were in 1862: a highly educated citizenry, leadership, wise and beneficial applications of science and technology, secure food and energy supplies, and strong and stable community economies. Since the beginning, the goal of land-grant institutions has been to address these challenges, and nothing has altered that in the present day.

Upon signing the Morrill Act, President Lincoln stated, “The land-grant university system is being built on behalf of the people, who have invested in these public universities their hopes, their support, and their confidence.”

That confidence of the people for their land-grant universities has been sustained for 150 years. If land-grant universities adapt to change, continue to be responsive, and always keep in mind that we were “built on behalf of the people,” we can continue to earn their support for another 150 years.

M. Scott Smith
Dean, College of Agriculture

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