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Delivering the land-grant promise

An open letter to the Virginia Tech community on the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Act

July 2, 2012, marks the day that Abraham Lincoln, with the sweep of his pen, forever shaped the future of the nation with his signature on the Morrill Act. This legislation established America’s system of land-grant universities, which not only provided access to a college education to a much broader sector of society but also enlisted the help of institutions of higher education in solving society’s pressing problems.

In this day of more than 4,000 American colleges and universities of all stripes and seemingly universal access to a college education, it might be hard to sense the revolutionary nature of the land-grant college concept. Emerging from a 19th-century American culture dependent on agriculture and industry, land-grant schools were the first higher-education institutions focused on research and improving the economy.  

The legislation became law 150 years ago in 1862, during the darkest days of the nation’s Civil War. We have come a long way since.

The social mobility afforded everyone has helped strengthen American democratic principles. Indeed, some have dubbed the Morrill Act the democratization of education.

Virginia Tech is one of two land-grant institutions in the state. The act was signed in 1862. But Virginia was ineligible to participate before its re-admission to the Union in 1870. Many of the commonwealth’s colleges vied for the land-grant distinction. In 1872 the state legislature selected the Preston and Olin Institute in Blacksburg to be redesignated the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. The college today known as Virginia Tech opened Oct. 1, 1872. Ten years later, Virginia State University was founded as a historically black four-year institution of higher learning. First known as Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, it obtained land-grant status in the Morrill Act amendments of 1890.

As our Spotlight story on the Virginia Tech homepage points out, “Today, research from Virginia Tech has helped improve the quality of life for people throughout the world. Because of Virginia Tech scientists, food is safer and its supply is more secure, water is cleaner, and grain is better able to withstand disease. Computers are faster and more energy efficient. Football players are better protected from head injuries. CHARLI, the first untethered, autonomous, full-sized walking humanoid robot, takes mechanical engineering to new heights with each step.”

I hope you will join me in celebrating this important milestone in the coming weeks and months. A website has been established to provide more details from history and also offer a calendar of events, including an upcoming series of lectures. Everyone is invited to a reception July 11, 2012, at 4:30 p.m. in the Newman Library Study Cafe, which will open an exhibit marking the sesquicentennial.

Built on the notion that higher education would take its new knowledge and apply it to critical needs of the times, land-grant colleges developed curricula responsive to the needs of industry, agriculture, and society. That principle is now embedded in the land-grant college ethos. Disciplines and fields of study continue to evolve, grow, and emerge.

Each day we live the reality of the 21st-century land-grant university. Please join me in celebrating that fact.


Charles W. Steger
President, Virginia Tech