Understanding Land Grant Institutions

I view this blog as a way to introduce not only extension and research material but also new or uncommon issues that are tangentially related to fruit crops.  In my work as an extension specialist I appreciate the support of many fruit growers who comprehend what I do, but I also interact with many who don’t have any idea.  Believe me; I understand the lack of awareness.  Before I began work as a faculty member, I had no idea either; even though I had been a student and employee at two different universities for a total of 12 years.  So, this is my opportunity to relay to you some things about what we do and how it’s done.  I am planning for this to run as a three-part series.  The first will cover the concept behind land grant institutions, the second will explore cooperative extension, and the third will be a peek inside of what a professor at a land grant institution with an extension appointment actually does.

But, let’s start at the beginning.  Mississippi State University (and most other institutions of higher education you get agriculture-related information from) is a Land Grant institution.  What does that mean?

A land-grant college or university is an institution that has been designated by its state legislature or Congress to receive the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. The mission of these institutions originally was to teach agriculture, military strategy, and mechanical arts as well as the traditional classical studies so that higher education would be available to all and not just the upper classes.

The Morrill Act of 1862 reflected an increasing need for agricultural and technical education in the United States at the time. Even though a number of already existing institutions did expand upon the traditional studies curriculum, higher education was still out of the reach of many in the working class. Therefore, the Morrill Act was put forth to provide the working classes with an education that directly impacted their daily lives instead of more esoteric studies.

Twenty-eight years later, the Second Morrill Act of 1890 prohibited distribution of money to states that made distinctions of race in admissions, reflecting the aftermath of the Civil War era, and also provided additional endowments for land-grants; however, states that had a separate land grant institution for African-Americans were eligible to receive the funds as well. Institutions that were founded or designated the land grant institution for African-Americans in conjunction with this Act are commonly known as the 1890 land grants.  Native American tribal colleges are sometimes referred to as the 1994 land grants in relation to a more recent Act.

Two of the main purposes evident in the creation of the original Morrill Acts were to create an alternative to the traditional curriculum in higher education at the time and development of college level instruction focusing on the agricultural and industrial based members of society.  This forward-thinking legislation has produced a system of colleges and universities managed by each state.

The federal support in the initial Morrill Act was to be the income from public lands made available to each state. The state was required to contribute to the maintenance and construction of its land-grant institution, of which a key component is the agricultural experiment station (AES) program created by the Hatch Act of 1887. The Hatch Act authorized payment of federal grant funds to each state to establish an AES in connection with the land grant institution. A portion of the Hatch Act funding supports regional research, enabling scientists to collaborate and coordinate activities and by doing so, avoid duplication of research efforts. The amount of this appropriation varies from year to year and is determined for each state through a statutory formula. A major portion of the federal funds must be matched by the state.

Because the 1890 land-grants do not receive Hatch Act funds, special programs have been created to help finance agricultural research at these institutions. The Evans-Allen program supports agricultural research with funds equal to at least 15% of Hatch Act appropriations.

The Morrill and Hatch Acts are still relevant to this day.  Even though many land grant institutions have broadened their educational scope over the years, the agriculture component plays a key role in their existence.  Yet increasingly, agriculture (and the many disciplines under that umbrella including horticulture) is fighting hard to maintain its identity.  The once dominant agrarian society of the United States has diminished.  In the university system, we must jostle among the other colleges and departments on campus for recognition.  And as each year passes, it’s more and more difficult to do.  Our funding dwindles while the demand for output from administration increases. Do more with less is the motto now.

I urge you as stakeholders in the ideals of the land grant institution to support your local land grant.  Support can come in many forms, not just financial.  Attend workshops, seminars, short courses, and other programming.  Read the fact sheets and publications.  Call or email extension specialists at your institution and rely on their expertise.  This type of support generates a quantitative assessment of programmatic usage.  Bigger numbers let us justify our existence and show those who control our destiny that agricultural education and research is still needed – maybe now more than ever.