The Morrill Act’s focus on university-based research had implications far beyond agriculture. It led to innovations that revolutionized health care, launched the biotechnology industry and helped create the information economy. Through such innovations, UC generates $46.3 billion in economic activity annually and contributes $32.8 billion toward California’s gross domestic product, a return on investment of $14 for every $1 in state taxpayer funding.

Today, UC is harnessing its brainpower to address the most pressing social and environmental problems: leading the way in production of clean energy; developing technologies and approaches that can feed a world of 9 billion by mid-century; and driving the new products, innovations and industries that will enable America to maintain its global economic leadership.

With land-grant universities facing unprecedented challenges in public funding and access, a panel that included UC and state agriculture leaders discussed how to maintain the Morrill Act legacy and renew America’s commitment to public higher education.

UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi cited the role UC plays as an engine of social mobility, educating first-generation college-goers, children of immigrants and the economically disadvantaged, and giving them the tools to become prosperous members of society.

Larry Smarr, director of UC’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), noted that the research mission of the land-grant universities has never been more important.

“Today we are a globally competitive world where innovation is everywhere. We need to be able to help or spur the innovation that will create whole new economies,” he said.

The core principle of the Morrill Act — that a well-educated populace is the underpinning of a competitive economy and a healthy society — is as true today as it was 150 years ago, speakers said.

And while America today faces difficult economic times, they are no more difficult than they were in the midst of civil war, the crucible from which the foundation for America’s system of public education was forged.

“Call it the American way, if you want,” Yudof said. “But there is one thing that has set this country, and this state, apart and it’s this: our willingness to step up and take a stand for education and all that brings — even when times are hard.”