The Legacy of the Land Grant
Imagine a country where enemy combatants terrorize citizens at home and
at work; where civil hostilities tear apart families; and where the largest
share of the nation’s treasury fuels domestic warfare. That place was the United
States in 1862. At that time, during the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln
signed the law that created the states’ land-grant universities. Weeks earlier,
Lincoln had signed the Homestead Act and established the U.S. Department of
Agriculture. It would seem that the nation’s leaders, at a moment of national
crisis, saw education and agriculture as necessary to national security.
How much do we still depend on education and agriculture? What is the legacy
of the land-grant university in the 21st century?
Before 1862, higher education was a privilege for the wealthy, patterned after
the European class system. A college education was generally available if you
were wealthy, white, and male. You would study Latin, literature, law, or the
classics at a private school. Education of the working class was left to guilds,
where tradesmen instructed apprentices, or to seminaries, where clergymen taught
religious novices. In the young United States, a few well-educated planters
studied scientific agriculture, but generally it was the pioneering yeoman
farmers who tilled the soil in the same way their grandfathers had back in
the old country.
The idea of education for all people was revolutionary. There was nothing
else like it in the world. At the beginning of the industrial revolution and
the massive migration into the western United States, the land-grant universities
represented a radical idea: public education is fundamental to the nation’s
Oregon Agricultural College was established in 1868 with funds from the sale
of 90,000 acres in southeast Oregon that had been granted to the state by the
federal government. The first class—one woman and two men—graduated in 1870
with Bachelor of Science degrees, the first degrees granted in the western
United States by a state-supported university. OAC (Oregon Agricultural College)
eventually became OSU (Oregon State University) in 1961, and it remains a leader
among the nation’s land-grant universities.
With the radical idea that research was fundamental to the nation’s economic
development, Congress passed the Hatch Act in 1887, which established a network
of Agricultural Experiment Stations. And in 1914, at the onset of World War
I, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act that established the Extension Service
to deliver research- based education to all people, reinforcing the idea that
education is fundamental to a strong nation.
Oregon State University is Oregon’s land-grant university, and the radical
ideas of public education, practical research, and engagement with the public
are written into its mission. Oregon’s Agricultural Experiment Station has
11 branch stations across the state, where scientists are improving
crops and ways to keep water clean and soil healthy. OSU Extension has faculty
working in every county in the state, where they deliver research-based education
to communities, industries, and youth.
The three-part mission of learning, disccovery, and engagement is fundamental to OSU as a land-grant university and gives our work a sense of purpose and meaningful contributions to society. Those contributions have helped create a food system in the
United States where less than two percent of the population is able to feed
the other 98 percent of the population, in addition to huge numbers of people
around the world.
“Agriculture touches everyone’s lives,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the National Institute for Food and Agriculture and former director of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station. “And the need
for innovations will continue as we face a 50 percent increase in the world’s
population in the next 40 years. Increased agricultural production must occur,
and it must be environmentally sustainable, using less water and energy.
“The new economy is visible in the economic growth of China, Russia, India,
Brazil, and other countries that compete with the U.S. in the global marketplace,”
said Ramaswamy. “But everyone, everywhere, in all sectors and economies,
is concerned about the same things. Food, water, energy, the environment, disease,
population; these are the concerns of the world. And they are the subjects
of OSU’s land-grant mission of research, teaching, and Extension.”