Five Minutes with Bernie
What’s a land-grant university? And why should people care? UF President Bernie Machen*, who is heading the national anniversary celebration of the Morrill Act, offers a quick primer.
Q. You’ve mentioned the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act in several recent speeches. Let’s start with the basics. What is the act?
A. The Morrill Act is the federal legislation that led to the creation of the first public land-grant universities. President Abraham Lincoln signed the act into law 150 years ago in 1862. Today, there are 106 land-grant institutions, with at least one in every state. In the South, these include UF, the University of Georgia, North Carolina State University and Auburn University.
Q. Wasn’t 1862 during the Civil War?
A. Yes. It is remarkable to me that Senator Justin Smith Morrill, Lincoln and the other supporters of the Morrill Act had the foresight to create a national public university system at a time when there were obviously much more pressing matters at hand. As a matter of historical record, the original Morrill Act excluded the Confederate states, including Florida. However, the Southern states were added after the war.
Q. What was the intent of the act?
A. The act sought to create universities that taught and supported agriculture and “mechanic” arts — what we refer to today as engineering — for the benefit of their states. However, the legislation specifically included scientific and classical studies, as well as “military tactics.” As Morrill himself commented, “The act of 1862 proposed a system of broad education by colleges, not limited to a superficial and dwarfed training such as might be had at an industrial school.”
Q. Why celebrate the 150th anniversary of the act?
A. This anniversary year gives the land-grant universities a chance to remind themselves and their constituents of their core mission. This is important at a time when states across the country are cutting higher education budgets — and when the public in general is increasingly critical of universities. What have the land-grant universities contributed to the country? How can they benefit their states and the nation in the future? These are questions that are especially timely this year.
Q. So … what is the future role of land-grant universities?
A. It’s a really good question. At UF, we remain fully committed to educating Florida’s young women and men and supporting Florida agriculture and economic development. But it’s also clear that we are pursuing an entrepreneurial path that in some ways breaks with tradition. We believe we can do both — serve the state as envisioned by the lawmakers of the 19th century, while also taking advantage of UF’s strengths to help the university grow and prosper in the 21st century.
Q. What is UF doing to celebrate the anniversary?
A. I serve as chair of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities’ celebration of the Morrill Act anniversary. As part of that yearlong celebration, the APLU and the Smithsonian are planning a major event this summer in Washington, D.C. The celebration will feature exhibits from many different land-grant universities on the National Mall. While the UF exhibit is still in the planning stages, our theme revolves around wise use of one of Florida’s most precious resources: water.
*UF Alumni Association member