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150th Anniversary of the Morrill Act

Morrill Act 150th Anniversary Logo

Why do we celebrate the Morrill Act?

On July 2, 2012, the University of Nevada and Cooperative Extension will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, the federal law that allowed such great universities as the University of Nevada, Reno, to come into being. Although the University of Nevada did not begin educating students until 1874 (as the State University of Nevada), and the first campus was located in Elko, the UNR we know today traces its roots back to July 2, 1862 – the day President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law.

How did the Morrill Act come about?

The Morrill Act of 1862 was also known as the Land Grant College Act. The act established institutions in each state that would focus on educating people in agriculture home economics, mechanical arts and other professions of the time. The measure was introduced by a Vermont congressman named Justin Smith Morrill, who wanted to ensure that a college education would be available to people from all social classes.

The measure gave each state 30,000 acres of public land for each Senator and Representative. The money raised from sale of those lands were put into an endowment used to fund what would become the land-grant college system in the United States. A second act passed in 1890 made provisions to include black institutions.

With the advent of land-grant universities, the focus of education shifted from classical studies to more applied studies that better prepared many students for the careers they would pursue after graduation. It opened the doors to higher learning for millions of farmers and other working people who were previously excluded from colleges.

The money raised from the Morrill Act helped create a system of state colleges and universities. All told, more than 70 colleges were funded or created by land grants, including such major universities as the University of Nevada, Reno, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Nebraska, Washington State, Clemson and Cornell. This explains why so many universities, including UNR, have buildings named Morrill Hall.

What is the significance of the Morrill Act?

The Morrill Act of 1862 represented a profound innovation moving higher education beyond the realm of only private, church-sponsored institutions and making education within the grasp of the non-elite in society.

Land grants were charged by law with promoting "without excluding other scientific and classical studies–the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life." In this way, higher education was poised to be a major engine for socio-economic development.

Why does Cooperative Extension recognize this anniversary?

The Morrill Act represented the federal government's desire to make the resources of land-grant universities – its faculty, innovations and knowledge – available to average citizens. In a sense, the general mission of Cooperative Extension – to give state residents easy access to the great resources of their land-grant universities – was created with the Morrill Act. "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," Lincoln said as he signed the bill into law.

Congress formalized this connection in 1887 with the passage of the Hatch Act, which directed land-grant universities to conduct research and experimentation in the public interest, and again 1914 with passage of the Smith-Lever Act, which directed land grants to take the university to all citizens through Cooperative Extension. Through this law, Congress also established a new funding arrangement for Extension through a three-way partnership between federal, state and county governments.

The role of Cooperative Extension

Throughout its nearly 100-year history, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension has educated from community-based offices throughout the state. Faculty and staff have identified critical needs and helped residents develop skills and acquire knowledge to improve their lives. Cooperative Extension educators take on issues of importance to both urban and rural audiences. They have designed programs that address the urban needs of a growing senior population and school dropout prevention in Clark County. Other programs meet the needs of rural citizens as they strive to become better stewards of the land and develop strategies for bolstering the economies of isolated Nevada communities.

"The fundamental land-grant principles are as relevant today as they were in 1862 -- accessibility, practical as well as classical education, research and discovery in the public interest, and connectedness to all people," said Karen Hinton, the Dean and Director of University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

"The issues and needs have changed considerably over the decades but changing economic needs and societal challenges emphasize the need for a responsive and dynamic university system that can bring the university's knowledge and research to the state in order to solve complex contemporary issues. By bringing research to citizens, the land-grant universities benefit individuals, families and communities as well as growers, businesses, and federal and state agencies."