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  • Reckoning with the Original Sin of Land-Grant Universities:Remaining Land-Grant Fierce While Insisting on Contrition and Repentance
  • Stephen M. Gavazzi (bio)

when e. gordon gee and i wrote Land-Grant Universities for the Future: Higher Education for the Public Good (2018), we were determined to explore the strengths and weaknesses of land-grant universities while simultaneously examining the changing threats they faced as twenty-first-century institutions of higher learning. Ultimately, we asserted that leaders and supporters should become more "land-grant fierce" in their orientation. We meant to underscore the notion that the tripartite mission of the land-grant universities—teaching, research, and service—was a particularly noble undertaking to be embraced passionately because the aim was to directly meet the needs of those communities they were designed to serve.

The subsequent book that David Staley and I coedited—Fulfilling the 21st Century Land-Grant Mission: Essays in Honor of The Ohio State University's Sesquicentennial Commemoration (2020)—followed a similar script. We instructed authors from across our university—representing fields as various as agriculture, dance, English, engineering, family science, geography, medicine, social work, and veterinary science—to celebrate the unique ways Ohio State was "land-grant fierce." The focus once again was directed toward the honorableness of the enterprise itself; that is, a storyline underscored how a land-grant university was following its virtuous mission of meeting community challenges and solving society's problems.

When the Land-Grab Universities (LGU) report (Lee and Ahtone 2020) was issued a few months after I had submitted the final edited version of the essays to be published in Fulfilling the 21st Century Land-Grant Mission, the proverbial scales fell from my eyes. Everything I knew about the 1862 Morrill Act, the congressional action that provided parcels of land to states that could be used or sold off to build an institution of higher learning, was turned upside down. As every reader of the Land-Grab Universities report now knows, the noble and virtuous land-grant mission was founded on distortions, violence, and the ongoing suffering of dispossessed people.

In short, the bill, which was designed to create public universities in each [End Page 157] state of the Union and was sponsored by Vermont senator Justin Morrill and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, gave away territories taken from Native American tribes typically by brute force or lopsided treaties. Judging by the seemingly endless social media conversations occurring about the Land-Grab Universities report, this information was news to a great many people, not just to me. I ended up taking the report both personally and seriously, however. As a longtime employee of a land-grant university—and as someone who received bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees from two additional land-grant universities—I felt compelled to begin speaking out about what I termed the "Original Sin" of our nation's first public universities.

In one of the first articles I composed as a Forbes contributor (Gavazzi 2020), I stated that acknowledgment of the disreputable background of the Morrill Act had become an important first step for the faculty, staff, students, and alumni of land-grant universities. However, I made the assertion that simple recognition was never going to be enough. The appropriate response from these institutions of higher learning would require both contrition and reparation. That is, it would be necessary for the leaders of the land-grant universities to find ways to meaningfully own the circumstances of their founding, acknowledge the debt, and provide some reasonable form of compensation.

I also wrote that there were some significant parallels in terms of the national dialogue regarding slavery—often described as America's "Original Sin"—as there were similar calls for contrition and reparations. However, whereas the incredible moral failing of Article 1 of the original United States Constitution is self-evident in terms of its support of slavery, it is less obvious exactly who should be on the receiving end of a genuine apology, let alone who should receive reparations. Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone (2020) make it abundantly clear that land-grant universities do not suffer from this same problem. The amount and location of...


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