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LSU celebrates 150th anniversary of Morrill Act

Throughout much of history, the idea of higher education was reserved for the minority of citizens, the wealthy elite who sought out instruction on philosophy and religion. As the world became more industrialized and the United States began expanding westward, the need for a skilled workforce grew and, with it, the need to educate the masses. From that need, U.S. Rep. Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont authored the first Morrill Act, which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862, and established the nation's land-grant college system.

Land grant plaque
With the merger of Louisiana State University and the Louisiana State Agricultural & Mechanical College in 1877, LSU became Louisiana's first land-grant institution. As the Morrill Act of 1862, which established land-grant colleges, celebrates its 150th anniversary, a plaque in the plaza of the LSU Memorial Tower celebrates the university's land-grant history.
Eddy Perez/University Relations

From November 2011 through November 2012, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities is celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Act of 1862, which established public land-grant institutions. With Acts 103 and 145 of the Louisiana legislature in 1876, Louisiana State University merged with the Louisiana State Agricultural & Mechanical College at New Orleans, Louisiana's original recipient of the Morrill Act in 1874, to become Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College in 1877, with the newly combined university serving as Louisiana's first land-grant institution.

The second Morrill Act, passed in 1890, expanded the original Morrill Act and established or expanded many of the nation's historically black college and universities, including Southern University, which earned land-grant status to become Southern University and Agricultural & Mechanical College.

"It gives us a very unique character, obviously," LSU Chancellor Michael Martin said of the university's history as a land-grant institution. "There's only one 1862 land-grant in this state, and we are it. We are lucky and fortunate to have a sister 1890 land-grant up the river from us at Southern, but it constantly reminds us that a land-grant university is a comprehensive servant not just to students but to all the people in the state."

States that established land-grant institutions did so for the "endowment, support and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life."

In conjunction with the state's land-grant institutions, the Hatch Act of 1887 allocated funding for the establishment of agricultural research stations. Twenty-seven years later, the Smith-Lever Act established a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and land-grant institutions in the form of cooperative extension services. As a result of these acts, agricultural research and cooperative extension services were added to the mission of LSU.

LSU has a history of leadership among land-grant colleges and universities. In 1921, LSU President Thomas Boyd was elected president of the American Association of Land-Grant Colleges, which later merged with the National Association of State Universities and the State Universities Association, and eventually became the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

In 1972, the LSU Board of Supervisors removed those services from the authority of Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College and created the Center for Agricultural Sciences and Rural Development, now known as the LSU Agricultural Center, with the responsibility for the agricultural research and extension programs across the state.

Under the leadership of Chancellor Bill Richardson, the LSU AgCenter, which operates as one of 11 separate institutions within the LSU System, provides the people of Louisiana with research-based educational information aimed at improving the state's economic well-being. The LSU AgCenter includes the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station, which conducts agricultural-based research, and the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service, which extends the knowledge from research to the people of the state with offices in all 64 parishes.

"The need for research from state agricultural experiment stations and for the dissemination of new knowledge through the extension service is as important now as it has ever been," said Richardson. "The constantly expanding world population demands that we increase our food and fiber production, while at the same time protecting the environment and sustaining our natural resources. We look forward to serving Louisiana for another 150 years."

However, the responsibilities of the Morrill Act are not limited to the mission of the LSU AgCenter. One of LSU's missions is the generation, preservation, dissemination and application of knowledge and cultivation of the arts. While implementing that mission, the university is committed to using its extensive resources to solve economic, environmental and social challenges, thus transforming the lives of Louisiana's citizens.

While U.S. Attorney General William Dewitt Mitchell ruled in 1930 that students at land-grant institutions were not required to take courses in military tactics to fulfill the requirements of the Morrill Act, so long as such courses were offered, LSU required mandatory ROTC participation by freshmen and sophomore male students until the LSU Board of Supervisors abolished the rule in 1969.

The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities also believes that the spirit of the land-grant institutions lies in its history of service. LSU promotes the engagement of faculty, staff and students in the transformation of Louisiana and its citizens by increasing collaboration with state and local leaders; enhancing the university's commitment to involvement in economic, social and cultural activities; extending the influence of scholarly expertise to benefit Louisiana, the United States and the world; and to enhance a faculty-led and student-centered learning environment that develops engaged citizens and enlightened leaders.

"As we celebrate the Morrill Act, we remind ourselves that we're not Baton Rouge's university, we're all of Louisiana's university," said Martin. "And we have a commitment to every citizen of Louisiana, whether they're a student in an active sense or not, and that's something we ought never forget. It's our mission, it's our legacy and it's our obligation."