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.

Beyond Agriculture

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.”