2015-10 From the President: Our Land Grant Mission

October 2015: Keeping Our Land Grant Legacy

You have heard it before. The more things change the more they stay the same. Or, we are going “back to the future.” We see evidence of the cyclical nature of behavior, attitudes, and public policies all the time. As scientists and educators we like to think that we are on the leading edge of progress, that we have advanced knowledge and contributed to a “better” world. And, at one level we have!

 Our students have learned what we know and added to it with new technologies, new literature, music, and public service opportunities. But, they do so in a world of fundamental truths that seem to repeat themselves. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Tribes and cultures go to war for principles or territory or economic gain. Nations defend themselves from the terror of attack. Elders admire their grandchildren more than anything.

 I was reminded of the cyclical nature of the duty and purpose of our university—the University of Minnesota—a land grant university established under the Morrill Land Grant Colleges Act signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862. The Morrill Act is officially titled “An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts.” Justin Smith Morrill, congressman from Vermont, wanted to assure that education would be available to all social classes.

 The Minnesota State Legislature signed a joint resolution to accept the land and funding for the land grant university on January 27, 1863, five years after we became a state and twelve years after the school had begun as a college preparatory school. (We did not become an institution of higher education until 1869!)

  In a short talk at a homecoming event where he received a 2015 University of Minnesota Outstanding Achievement Award, Michael Martin, chancellor emeritus from the Colorado State System, proclaimed that the land grant colleges and universities are as relevant as they have ever been, and perhaps more so, in light of the state of our economy and the troublesome distribution of income and wealth in the United States. He reminded us that the purpose of the Morrill Act was to provide an education for the people who could not go to expensive private schools and who were needed for the agricultural and industrial development of our nation. The purpose of land grant universities was and is to prepare people for the professions of their time.

 We, U of M retirees, delivered the legacy of the land grants. In our time the professions evolved from a focus on farming to the entire food supply chain, from mechanical arts to engineering and computer science, and emphases on urban services, medical technologies, global trade, environmental sustainability, political economy, etc.

 The point is that universities like ours are still the key players in making education available for all social classes. As stated in the 2014 Strategic Plan, the mission of the University reinforces this: “The University of Minnesota, founded in the belief that all people are enriched by understanding, is dedicated to the advancement of learning and the search for truth; to the sharing of this knowledge through education for a diverse community….”

We have the privilege, opportunity, and obligation to help our younger colleagues and our institution to go back to the future as Chancellor Emeritus Martin suggested. When we stay in touch, stay involved, and stay true to our legacy, we retirees will continue to keep the University of Minnesota strong.

— Jean Kinsey, UMRA President
     jkinsey@umn.edu