It started with a realization in the 1860s, commonplace now, but at that time a rather groundbreaking notion: education that was only available to the upper classes just didn’t suit a democratic society. Honest Abe agreed, and signed the Morrill Act into law, providing for grants of public land to establish colleges. In 1870 then-Territorial Governor Edward MCook authorized the creation of what today is called Colorado State University.
When CSU embraced this land grant mission, it became a force for increasing “opportunity, economic advancement, and social responsibility” (Denver Post, 2/11/2010) for a broad segment of the population that needed education that was relevant to their day-to-day lives.
The original land grant mission aimed to increase instruction in practical sciences (like agriculture, engineering, and military tactics), which contrasted the primarily “liberal arts” curricula of higher education institutions at that time (“The Land-Grant Tradition,” National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.
Today, land-grant universities have a three-part mission – research, education/training, and outreach/extension – that commits university resources to address state needs. At CSU, that is reflected in many ways, including robust extension and rural development services, cutting-edge research in areas pertinent to the private sector, and furthering programs that help make the world safer and more sustainable (e.g., in the disciplines of infectious disease and clean/renewable energy). There is at least one land-grant institution per state, plus institutions in DC and the U.S. territories. Since 1994, Native American Colleges have been included as well.
So why does the Land grant mission matter today? Land grant universities belong to the people. They provide student-centered education while still conducting major research. Land grant universities are key to 4H endeavors, county fairs, and local youth/family programs. They advance the frontiers of knowledge, provide cultural, as well as intellectual leadership, and continue to support that post-Industrial Revolution notion which is as relevant today as it was then: a commitment to providing access to higher education for more than the upper crust.