A century and a half ago, with America torn by civil war, Abraham Lincoln signed into law an act that would reshape higher education in the United States.

The Morrill Act of 1862 opened the way for a new type of university whose charge it was to bring to a broader public those educational opportunities that were only available to a privileged few. This month, the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture celebrates the law that made agricultural education possible.

Under the act, states were granted a certain amount of land to sell. The proceeds would then be used create an endowment to support the colleges “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.”

Dozens of colleges were funded by these land grants, including Cornell, MIT and Arkansas Industrial University--which would later become the University of Arkansas.

In signing the act, Lincoln would give his young country the intellectual tools to capitalize on the innovation that seemed to burst forth from laboratories and workshops around the world. It was an age that would give birth to world-changing inventions like the internal combustion engine, typewriters and the light bulb.

“One of the secrets to success in American enterprise --and especially agriculture --is the continual pursuit of comparative advantage and improved efficiency,” said Mark Cochran, vice president-agriculture for the University of Arkansas. “Fulfilling the original mission of the land grant university to apply science to relevant problems has been our greatest accomplishment.”

Known as the “people’s colleges,” “farmers’ colleges,” and “democracy’s colleges,” the ability of the land grant universities “to adapt research to new opportunities and challenges through programs in agriculture, environmental management, families and youth, or economic development, is the heart of what we do,” he said.

In Arkansas, the land grant mission expressed through the university’s Division of Agriculture has two channels: research done through the Agricultural Experiment Station and informal education through the Cooperative Extension Service.

When asked what made the land grant university concept so durable, Cochran said there are two characteristics that have made a tremendous impact on American society “and still possess potential for the future.” They are:

  • The university as an unbiased source of science-based information.
  • The unique interplay that exists among the discovery of new knowledge through research; its application, adaption and dissemination of best practices to those can use that knowledge; and the education, both formal and informal, of the latest advances in science and management of issues in food and agriculture, the environment, and our rural communities to students of all ages.

“I truly believe these two qualities have transformed our society,” Cochran said, adding that what Lincoln understood about the power of education has been borne out through the land grant system.  “Education has opened the way to a higher standard of living and productivity for those in Arkansas and the rest of the U.S.”

Division of Agriculture Day celebrations will markthe Morrill Act anniversary on Oct. 20 and 27. Visit http://aaes.uark.edu/ for times and locations.