- The Future of Land-Grab Universities
the land-grab universities (lgu) project compellingly conveys how nearly eleven million acres of land were stolen from almost 250 tribes, bands, and communities to establish land-grant universities.1 In their work identifying nearly all tracts covered under the Morrill Land Grant Acts, the LGU team connected Indigenous nations with their tracts and calculated the financial benefits land-grant institutions reaped from sales of these lands. Placing the Morrill Act into the context of widespread fraudulent and coercive land-seizure practices in the mid- to late 1800s, LGU successfully illustrates how the existence of contemporary land-grant universities is predicated on extractive legal practices backed by threats of government violence.
Students, faculty, and staff at land-grants occupy the shadows of these violent, genocidal processes that forcibly expropriated lands from Indigenous peoples and communities. A critical piece of investigative journalism, LGU raises awareness of how land-grant universities not only exist upon Indigenous lands but also have been built with Indigenous lands.2 Through interactive visualizations that allow users to search by state, institution, and tribal community, readers learn how the Morrill Act provided a financial foundation for contemporary land-grant universities. Supported by an extensive bibliography and links to media coverage of the project, the visualizations provide information on endowments, enrollment (including Indigenous student enrollment), and profits generated from the Morrill Acts. LGU depicts tracts expropriated, grantees, and the total financial gains generated through those lands. Users learn, for example, about the impact of the 1851 Dakota cession, which reassigned nearly 830,000 acres to endow thirty-five different universities, linking one out of every 13 acres redistributed under Morrill to the United States' dispossession of Dakota people across Mní Sota Makoče.
The striking numbers revealed in LGU's financial analysis make this project a critical intervention into conversations about land dispossession and higher education. Future projects could extend this work even further: U.S. Department of Commerce economist William Larson estimated in 2015 that the 1.89 billion acres of land that make up the United States of America were worth $23 trillion. Splitting the United States into census [End Page 169] tracts, parcels, and counties, Larson identified "land" price and value estimates that included "ecosystems (e.g. root systems such as alfalfa), basic siting improvements (e.g. fencing, irrigation, and land clearing), and stocks of natural resources that convey with the land (e.g. timber, water, hunting, and fishing rights)."3 LGU accounts for land price for all institutions, while some valuations included mineral rights and surface rights.4 Yet land valuation is more complex, as institutions' longitudinal financial benefits from land accrue over time. For example, institutions cleared their lands, selling off timber or using the resources to build. The estimated value of those resources along with others like hunting rights, mineral rights, and access to water increases calculations of institutions' financial gains, as would calculations of tax benefits and other financial incentives. This more complex understanding of land valuation further illuminates the ways settler colonialism is extractive—not simply predicated on landownership and the sale of land but on its utility for continually generating profit over time.
We might push those wishing to build on LGU's argument to take a more expansive view of the value of land, one that would consider relations between humans and more-than-human relatives to understand land's importance. LGU's reliance on private property values alone, without drawing attention to the importance of Indigenous relationships with land, risks confirming settler logics of capitalist valuation that undergird the imagined right of colonization on terra nullius. Depicting value and land impact only in terms of capital reinforces settler notions of land as an extractable commodity. Instead, an approach that engages nonquantitative analyses of the impact of Morrill Act transfers could help users revise their understanding of land as a capitalist deliverable. What if, for example, LGU offered users a chance to think through a different relationship to land that engages with Indigenous ways of knowing that rely on active maintenance of relationship to the land through responsible stewardship? This would raise...