Leaders in higher education, agriculture and technology gathered in Sacramento April 30 to celebrate one of Abraham Lincoln’s most lasting if lesser-known legacies: the act that made public higher education available to the masses.

“The University of California has, quite literally, developed something for everyone. From the soil under our feet to the ozone in our atmosphere and the galaxies beyond, UC has contributed to our understanding of the universe,” said UC Riverside Chancellor Timothy P. White.

“The right to rise — that is what makes the American experiment so exceptional,” Abraham Lincoln said about why he signed the Morrill Act some 150 years ago, in the midst of the Civil War.

The Morrill Act gave birth to the University of California and secured the state’s pre-eminence in research, agriculture and technological innovation. Investing in higher education took vision then — as the fledgling republic struggled for its very survival — and it takes vision now, speakers said. Yet it also remains a foundational investment in American economic competitiveness and the nation’s leadership as a democratic society.

The Morrill Act “transformed not just California, but the entire United States, from a divided, underdeveloped society into one that is vigorously diverse, competitive and advanced,” said UC President Mark Yudof. “And perhaps most importantly, it made mass education — which is the bedrock of both national and individual progress — the norm, and not the exception.”

Birth of the land-grant university

The legislation established the so-called land-grant universities, transferring acreage left over from the development of the Transcontinental Railway to state governments to help fund the creation of public universities. The goal was to provide higher learning to the children of the settlers, farmers and frontier prospectors, not just to the offspring of the railroad barons.

The institutions were charged with, among other disciplines, advancing instruction and research in the cutting fields of the day — agriculture and the “mechanic arts.” Funds from the sale of land grant holdings enabled the creation of the Berkeley campus. Follow-up legislation established agricultural experiment stations, including one in Riverside, the University Farm at Davis, Cooperative Extensions and funds that enabled the UC system to grow.

“California is the poster child for how the act worked to transform the economy of its time, create the future and transform individual lives,” said state Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge), who co-authored a Senate resolution honoring the principles of the Morrill Act and affirming the value of public higher education.

Linking the university with the practice of agriculture in California laid the groundwork for what would become a $37.5 billion agricultural industry and make California a food supplier to the world, said Rose Hayden-Smith, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Ventura County. Today, that leadership carries new urgency. Emerging threats like citrus greening disease stress food production, while the world’s population is exploding.

“Food security is a national and global issue. Only an interdisciplinary approach — the kind UC is uniquely poised to provide — can address this challenge,” Hayden-Smith said.