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Morrill Act: honoring our land grant history

As Americans prepare for Fourth of July festivities, celebrations on the National Mall and at universities across the country this week are marking the anniversary of another event that was pivotal to America's future: passage of the legislation that created public higher education.

The Morrill Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862, created the so-called land-grant universities, donating land left over from the building of the Transcontinental Railroad to fund the creation of institutions of higher learning, charged with educating citizens from all walks of life and with advancing research into the cutting-edge fields of the day — agriculture and engineering.

The idea was revolutionary at the time, according to UC Berkeley wildlife and forestry professor Reginald Barrett, whose great-great grandfather, Jonathan Baldwin Turner, was the leader of the movement that launched the Morrill Act.

"He was absolutely convinced that our Constitution was the way to go, but he was very worried that unless the average person was educated and understood how to make decisions when it came to politics, it wasn't going to work," Barrett said.

To gain support for his vision of public higher education, Turner went from house to house on horseback, meeting with then-candidate Lincoln as well as Lincoln's chief rival, Sen. Stephen Douglas.

The idea faced stiff opposition from private colleges and those who opposed non-sectarian education.

"He got a lot of flak. People burnt down his barn and harassed him, all kind of bad things," said Barrett. "But he just kept pushing this idea that everyone who was willing and able should get a college education, and it was worth it to society to pay for it, because they would get it back in the long run."

After a few failed attempts, the Morrill Act was signed into law, even as the Civil War raged and the new nation fought for its very survival.

In California, the land grant provided the state with the funds to establish a public university, giving rise to the creation of the University of California in 1868. Further legislation created the University Farm at Davis and the Citrus Experiment Station at Riverside.

The impact rippled far beyond the campus borders, providing opportunity to the children of immigrants and settlers just as it did for the offspring of landowners and industrial barons. A well-educated populace helped the state's economy thrive. The nascent university also led to the creation of agricultural extension offices and other programs that took innovations out of the labs and put them into practice in fields and farms around the state. That historic partnership remains just as important today, helping to sustain a $37.5 billion farm economy in the state.

Some 150 years after the Morrill Act was signed its principles are still at work in the labs, university farms and citrus experiment stations where researchers tackle problems ranging from citrus greening disease and soil contamination to climate change and the global water shortage.

Its impact can be seen in the opportunity it provides for students: 40 percent of UC undergraduates are the first in their family to go to college and 39 percent are Pell Grant recipients.

Its reach is evident in the 4-H clubs, schoolyard gardens and local nutrition programs that take UC innovation and expertise out of the classroom and into the community.

And it is at play across UC's campuses, national laboratories and medical centers, where breakthrough research helps launch startups, uncover galaxies, spawn new products and cure disease, returning some $14 dollars in economic output for every $1 of state taxpayer investment, according to an independent 2011 study.

The landscape out of which the Morrill Act emerged — that of a nation riven by conflict and struggling to find its place in the world — may be a thing of history. But in a country competing in a global marketplace and confronting global problems, in a state with an economy that is fueled by innovation and dependent upon on a highly skilled workforce, the principles that governed the act's signing seem as relevant now as ever.