[This article ran first at Zócalo Public Square]
To understand how public universities reached their present state of decline and near-crisis, you might look back a century and a half to July of 1862, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant Act into law. The act, to which we can credit many of the higher-education triumphs of the United States, did not, as is sometimes believed, give states acreage upon which to build huge public universities. Instead, each state was granted rights to federal land in the western territories, the income from which would be used to create:
at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.
To implement the law, the federal government gave states scrip redeemable for land. Flooding the market with newly printed currency caused inflation, and many states sold their land rights quickly for 30 cents an acre. In New York, by contrast, Ezra Cornell convinced state leaders to wait for the market to rebound and eventually directed the purchase of a half million acres of valuable pine forest in Wisconsin, returning nearly $10 an acre to the university bearing his name.
Thus, the Morrill Act helped establish bedrock features of America’s public universities that persist to this day. Tension between mechanic arts and classical studies—between the practical and the sublime—would be built into their character. They would serve industrial and other classes who had seldom if ever before been seen as worthy of higher education. The states would be given free rein to run public universities in such manner as their legislatures prescribed. And some states, in matters financial and otherwise, would prove much wiser than others.