Doyle-Schechtman: Justin Morrill homestead

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(HOST) August 30th is the 119th Anniversary of a bill that forever changed the face of education in this country.  Commentator Deborah Doyle-Schechtman reflects on The Morrill Act of 1890, the events that led up to the democratization of higher learning it supported, and the Vermonter behind it all.

(DOYLE-SCHECHTMAN)  My nephew, like millions of other young adults this month, is heading off to a land grant-college.  As smart as he is, I doubt that he knows much about the person responsible for establishing his university of choice – choice being the operative word.

Although our forefathers put a premium on learning, higher education was a privilege of the elite until the Civil War. It was then that Justin Morrill, a successful merchant from Strafford, Vermont, a self-taught architect, and a  horticulturalist turned politician, undertook to establish a federally supported school system. Driven by his own lack of formal instruction, he believed that every child should have access to, as historian Allan Nevins writes,  "…as complete an education as his tastes and abilities warranted."  To that end, Congressman Morrill crafted a bill in 1862 that bore his name.  In it, he proposed joining equal opportunity with a broader knowledge base to address the needs of the industrial classes, or as he put it, "…the sons of toil." The Morrill Act of 1862 met these goals through the sale of public lands, the proceeds of which were used to underwrite the cost of a college in every state, the District of Columbia and U.S. Territories.  Those applying for these funds were then required to either create a new institution, or designate an existing one to teach subjects related to agriculture and the mechanic arts – hence the A&M moniker attached to many universities today. Military training was also a requirement, which led to the development of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, or ROTC.  What made this bill so significant was that during an era of economic uncertainty, social unrest, and racial inequality higher education embraced inclusivity.  Morrill’s vision and fortitude provided a cornerstone of the Reconstruction Period, and ensured a workforce that would meet the demands of a growing nation.

One of the things the Act of 1862 didn’t foresee, however, was the strain yearly operating costs put on the endowments.  To correct the problem, Senator Morrill wrote a bill twenty-eight years later establishing an annual cash subsidy for all land-grant institutions.  The Morrill Act of 1890 also rectified a racial oversight by expanding the system of grants to include black institutions. It extended land-grant provisions to 16 southern states; and clearly stipulated that no money would go to any institution "…where a distinction of race or color is made in the admission of students."

There are currently 172 land-grant colleges and universities, teaching well-over 2 million students each year, and claiming more than 20 million alumni.  Although many of these facilities, including the University of Vermont, have a building named after Morrill, none compare to the home he designed and built himself on a hilltop in Strafford. Now a National Historic Landmark and state-owned historic site, open to the public through mid-October, the Gothic Cottage, assorted outbuildings, well-planned grounds, and gardens – where Morrill lived when not in Washington – reflect the life, careers and varied interests of one of the most inspired men of his time.

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