For most of the 19th century higher education in America was reserved for the very wealthy and focused almost exclusively on classical subjects.
But forward-thinking leaders like Jonathan Baldwin Turner of Illinois, Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont and President Abraham Lincoln saw great opportunity in educating more of the country’s citizens in practical subjects like agriculture and engineering. So in 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Morrill shepherded through Congress and Lincoln signed the Land-Grant College Act, universally known as the Morrill Act. The act provided each state with 30,000 acres of federal land for each of its Representatives and Senators in Congress. States could then use the land to fund public institutions focused on agriculture, engineering and military science.
The effect was immediate and dramatic. Within eight years after the Morrill Act became law, 37 states had created land-grant colleges. Today, the member institutions of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) enroll more than 3.5 million undergraduate and 1.1 million graduate students. APLU campuses employ more than 645,000 faculty members and conduct nearly two-thirds of all federally funded academic research, totaling more than $34 billion annually.
During the last 150 years, American public colleges and universities have become the envy of the world. They have educated millions of our sons and daughters and made scientific discoveries that have dramatically changed our way of life for the better. And they have attracted students from around the globe, many of whom stayed and contributed to society in countless ways. Others returned to their homelands and became ambassadors for the American ideal.
“During the last 150 years, American public colleges and universities have become the envy of the world. They have educated millions of our sons and daughters and made scientific discoveries that have dramatically changed our way of life for the better.” – David Norton, Vice President for Research
The University of Florida is one of the most prominent examples of the transformational powers of the land-grant concept. When Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, Florida was a frontier land with few residents and even fewer educational opportunities. Through the Morrill Act the state established the Florida Agricultural College, which became the University of Florida in 1906. Today, Florida is the fourth largest state, home to nearly 19 million people. The University of Florida is one of the nation’s largest and most comprehensive universities, with nearly 50,000 students and an annual research budget approaching $700 million.
In this special issue of Explore magazine, we illustrate a sampling of the ways UF exemplifies the land-grant ideals in agriculture, engineering and the health sciences.
Public universities are facing significant challenges as we move into the 21st century. Economic pressures have led to dwindling state and federal support, creating the need for a greater reliance on tuition and private funding, but also energizing these universities to become more entrepreneurial through things like sponsored research, technology transfer and distance education programs.
But through projects like those featured here and the thousands more under way on our campus and around the state and globe, the University of Florida continues to educate our children and advance scientific knowledge on many fronts. We are confident that when our successors celebrate the bicentennial of the Morrill Act in 2062, the University of Florida will still be a national leader in education and research.
This article was originally featured in the Summer 2012 issue of Explore Magazine.