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Why the 'land' in 'land grant' is not about agriculture

Michael Whalen

When Jacob Gould Schurman became Cornell's third president in 1892, he inherited a university that had struggled financially from its inception. Even though Cornell was New York's land-grant institution, Schurman argued that, for a variety of reasons, the state had become the beneficiary of the university rather than the university being the beneficiary of the state.

Sensing that Cornell's disciplines in greatest need of financial support coincided with economic interests of the state that enjoyed broad popular appeal -- agriculture and veterinary medicine -- Schurman launched a crusade to garner state funding for these activities. His success, and later that of Liberty Hyde Bailey, led to the creation of the contract colleges at Cornell and the system by which the state could legally (and politically) support the activities of a private research university.

An unfortunate byproduct, however, of the Schurman/Bailey juggernaut was the seeming alignment of the university's land-grant nature with the particular missions of the contract colleges. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the Morrill Land Grant Act specifies agriculture as a discipline to be taught, it also named engineering ("the mechanic arts") and military tactics, and recognized that other branches of science and knowledge could be embraced in the plan of instruction to promote a "liberal and practical education."

Part of the reason for the conflation of "land grant" with "contract college" arose from an assumption that the "land" in "land grant" had to do with agriculture. The distribution of federal lands was merely the mechanism by which the U.S. government, which was property rich but cash strapped, supported a variety of projects: pensions for soldiers, inducements to railroads and settlers to improve western territories, and support for elementary and higher education.

The university's founders clearly saw that all of Cornell's academic disciplines were part of its land-grant mission. In fact, land-grant moneys from New York state were used to help build Boardman Hall, the Law School's first home, and when the second Morrill Act was passed in 1890, the director of Sibley College petitioned the Cornell trustees to have the new land-grant funding directed to engineering instead of agriculture.

In reality, the land-grant mission has always been diffused throughout Cornell. The teaching of hotel management, medicine, architecture, law, government, theater and physics are as much a part of the land-grant mission as plant breeding. In a very real sense, Cornell's motto of being "an institution where any person can find instruction in any study" is an elegant restatement of that land-grant mission -- the proposition that a land-grant university should be expansive, endlessly adaptable and always relevant to the needs of society.

Michael Whalen, now retired, was the director of planning information and policy analysis in the university's Division of Budget and Planning when he wrote "A Land-Grant University" as part of Cornell's published 2001-02 Financial Plan .Whalen held a variety of positions during his 38-year career at Cornell, working for three of its colleges, and was associated with the budget and planning division for 23 years. The article detailing the impact of the Morrill Land Grant on Cornell was one of a series of his essays written to present the historical and societal framework for Cornell's finances and the economics of higher education in general.


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