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  • "We Grow the Ivy":Cornell's Claim to Indigenous Dispossession
  • Judy Kertész (bio) and Angela A. Gonzales (bio)

the state of new york incorporated Cornell University, its Ivy League land-grant institution, three years after the passage of the Morrill Act, also known as the Agricultural College Land Grant of 1862. The brainchild of Justin Smith Morrill, gentleman farmer and U.S. senator from Vermont, the Morrill Act was a response to the limited higher-education opportunities afforded to rural and working-class families.1 In 1889 Cornell University acknowledged its great debt when it named its first building Morrill Hall and prominently featured a portrait of Morrill in its library alongside that of the university's founder, Ezra Cornell.

Morrill, much like Ezra Cornell, believed that "if the training and education of domestic animals wonderfully increases their value and title to esteem, obviously for man, having 'dominion over every living creature,' it must be of vastly higher importance."2 Their shared worldview encompassed the idea of man's mastery over the earth. Land as nature required the civilizing hand of the bucolic yeoman farmer if only so domesticated animals could safely graze, root, and roost, where mechanically minded savants and the educated scions of farmers could rule over land, hoe in hand.3 Critical to keep in mind is the long-enduring ideal of the yeoman farmer in the settler imagination. Through his engagement with agricultural development and his mastery of technology, the yeoman farmer justified the appropriation of land. Vital to the rhetoric and policies of American expansionism, the yeoman farmer transformed the American wilderness through husbandry and agriculture rather than violence. So the story goes.

Myth merged with militarization so that in the midst of the U.S. Civil War, the federal government, as if ex nihilo, allocated 10.7 million acres of "public land" to individual states.4 States in turn were to sell their apportionment in order to fund universities that would teach "branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, including military tactics."5 While the last of these three areas of learning has yet to be mentioned on any land-grant institution's website, we should pay particular attention to the third category, intended to insure the United States' military reach and viability. [End Page 145]

Overall, the premise of the land-grant institution is that it serves the public that funds it. Cornell states that its mission is to "discover, preserve and disseminate knowledge, to educate the next generation of global citizens, and to promote a culture of broad inquiry throughout and beyond the Cornell community."6 This is the unfettered byline, the self-referential origin story that the majority of land-grant institutions like Cornell promote when relating their particular institution's purpose. What gets lost in the morass of institutional myth-making is the history of the land-grant system's inception within the much larger context of war.

As of 2003, 60 percent of public research institutions that comprised the National Association of State Universities were land-grant schools. One-third of the nation's research universities and forty-six of the original fifty land grants are classified as research universities, while thirty-one of the fifty are Research I institutions.7 Indeed, as some have argued, the establishment of the land-grant system and its subsequent expansion explains to a great degree the enhancement of the technological infrastructure of the United States. The nation's ascent as a global economic superpower in the twentieth century is a direct consequence of the establishment of land-grant institutions, the indispensable engine that drove the long-term rate of per capita GDP growth in the United States.8

Revisionist histories seek to disentangle myth from history while weighing ethically questionable consequences against the ambitions of transnational corporations and nation-states, as well as settler-centric narratives against Indigenous historical experience. For years, cross-disciplinary scholars within Indigenous studies have countered land-grant narratives of self with charges of land grabbing, or the "foreignization of space."9 By definition, land grabbing is the large-scale expropriation of land that occurs without the prior, willing, and informed consent...


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