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  • Morrill Issues and Academic Liberalism
  • David R. Roediger (bio)

it is a pleasure to write in brief response to this exciting and remarkable project of mapping, journalism, and political intervention. From 1985 until 2013 I taught entirely in land-grant universities: the University of Missouri, then Minnesota, and finally Illinois. Justin Smith Morrill's ghost roamed those grounds, roughly 150 years after the act bearing his name funded such colleges through the sale of Indian lands that the government had taken. Leaders at Minnesota and Illinois frequently reminded everyone of each university's land-grant status and linked the strengths of the university to the heroism of Morrill. The latter campus had a Justin Smith Morrill Hall.

Administrators talk of land-grant universities in terms of "mission." Histories of the 1862 law and of Morrill himself have left plenty of room for mission creep. Historians view the Land Grant Act as part of a bundle of prodevelopment legislation of the early 1860s. At least since Louis Hacker's The Triumph of American Capitalism (1941), the law has taken its place among initiatives toward economic and territorial expansion passed when Southerners had left the Union, taking their sectional views on the course of empire, railways, and industry with them. Resulting laws included the land-grabbing authorizations of the transcontinental railroad, the Homestead Act, and high tariffs sought by nascent industries—a cause with which Morrill passionately identified. Hacker rightly connected such legislation to the boom in U.S. industrial and agricultural production that sent the United States to the position of unchallenged economic world leadership. The Land Grant Act spoke both to farm production and to things "mechanic" in ways comporting with agribusiness and engineering emphases so dominant in many large state universities. The business-government-military synergies envisioned by the original act played even better to college administrators as time passed.

Braided into the rhetoric of the practical, prodevelopment land-grant university are populist appeals equally serviceable to university administrators. The University of Illinois presented a particularly expansive version of such appeals, one underwritten by the fact that only a short walk separated Morrill Hall from Lincoln Hall. The connections, real and imagined, of these two sons of common folk, along with the Illinois origins of plans for support of agricultural colleges, made it possible to discuss the Morrill Act [End Page 92] as if it sprouted from the very soil of the state. The connections of college education to what the historian Gabor Boritt has called Lincoln's belief in the "Right to Rise" joined Morrill's presentation of his own story—the blacksmith's son become merchant-farmer—in defining the purposes of the land-grant college. Morrill advertised his legislation as championing not only the "mechanic arts" but also the prospects of the "lowly mechanic." Outreach from universities to the broader community, from 4-H Clubs to agricultural extension services, grew from the Morrill Act and allied initiatives. The law seemed to deserve mention whenever an event strayed from campus, tried to bring in a community audience, or even just happened to take place on a weekend.

To criticize very seriously the throat-clearing rhetoric of administrators introducing a speaker or welcoming a conference to campus invites unhappiness and courts a reputation for crankiness. I manage to grit teeth during invocations of the university's profound connection to the service of "citizens," even as rights of noncitizens stand among the most critical moral and political issues. However, I have found it important to interrupt the logic of homilies to land-grant institutions by asking first myself, then those sitting near me, and now as broadly as I can: "Whose land?"

Struggles over Indigenous rights and representations at Minnesota and especially at Illinois provided the context for such an emergent question. In the former university, Indigenous rights campaigns have included ones over the genetic mapping of wild rice and the university's buy-in to the Mount Graham telescope project, both of which involved the disappearing of Indigenous interests at a moment when the university's interest in securing Native support for endowment projects was quickening. It seemed necessary to remind administrators of what activists were teaching us...


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pp. 92-96
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