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Happy Birthday, Morrill Act

Every university has its own graduation tradition. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, graduates don their caps and gowns and trek up Bascom Hill to where a statue of Abraham Lincoln sits tall and proud.  They climb into Abe’s lap, and take in the view. With one arm slung around his neck, they tell Abe their hopes and aspirations and thank him. After all, had Lincoln not signed the Morrill Land Grant Act, their beloved UW would not have thrived. In fact, without the Morrill Act, many of our great state institutions wouldn’t exist at all.

Justin Morrill, a congressman from Vermont, introduced the land-grant bill in 1857 to give federal land to states to establish institutions of higher education. In return, these universities would provide instruction not just in classical studies, but also in vocational fields such as agriculture, mechanics, and military tactics. Seen as federal overreach into states’ rights, the act languished for years, until President Lincoln signed it into law during the Civil War. Lincoln knew that the strength of the nation depended upon an educated electorate, so it was in the public interest to provide educational opportunities not only to the elite, but also to the industrial class.

Today we celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Act. Over the past 150 years, America’s public research universities have become some of the best in the nation and world. Not only do they contribute greatly to our national prosperity, competitiveness, and security, they also provide wide access to those historically underrepresented in higher education. America’s public universities educate approximately 85 percent of the students who receive bachelor’s degrees at research universities, and 70 percent of graduate students. They account for more than 60 percent of the research and development in the nation.

But fissures have appeared in our public system at the very timea postsecondary credential has become more critical. For decades, states have been disinvesting in their public colleges and universities, meaning that public institutions have been forced to do more with less. And when they can’t maintain the status quo or do more with less, they shift the cost onto students. This past year alone tuition and fees increased 8.3 percent for in-state students at public four-year universities compared with 4.5 percent at private nonprofits.

Many elite public institutions, meanwhile, have seemingly forgotten that they are not only public in funding, but in mission. In the face of diminishing resources, flagships have become increasingly “privatized” in order to set tuition rates higher than their public counterparts. This allows them to remain “competitive” with private, heavily-resourced universities at the top of the US News & World Reportrankings. But this competition spurs institutional actions that run counter to the mission of public universities to provide broad, affordable access to a diverse student body.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the Morrill Act, let’s take a moment to consider the direction of our state university system. It's imperative that we work together to ensure that the best years of public higher education are not behind us. There are no quick and simple solutions for the problems that plague higher education. States need to reinvest in higher education. Institutions should quit playing the costly rankings game. Stakeholders need to stop eyeing each other suspiciously and recognize that “innovation” and “shared governance” do not have to be contradictions.

Let’s hope that when we reach the bicentennial anniversary of the Morrill Act, our state universities have not become relics of the past, and that graduates at Wisconsin still make the trip up Bascom to thank Abe.

Happy Birthday, Morrill Act. May there be many more.