On this day 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln signed the act responsible for the inception of Purdue University.

The Morrill Act was created to make higher education more accessible and to promote “liberal and practical education.”

This was the same year other notable pieces of legislation were enacted such as the Homestead Act and the bill authorizing the transcontinental railroad. The act granted at least 30,000 acres of federal land per member of Congress each state had as of the 1860 Census. This is the land Purdue resides on, which is why it is known as a “land-grant” institution.

According to Purdue history professor John Contreni, who formerly held the position of the “Justin S. Morrill Dean of the College of Liberal Arts” at Purdue, the act was popular but failed to pass in 1861.

The Civil War changed that.

“These initiatives had been discussed for some time,” Contreni wrote in an email. “but were held up by congressmen from the Southern states. In 1862, the country was in the middle of the Civil War, so the Southern states were out of the picture and the legislation was enacted.”

Contreni added the Southern states were included later after the Civil War, but in another way.

“A corollary to the Morrill Act is what is sometimes called the second Morrill Act of 1890,” Contreni wrote. “This extended the provisions of the act to the states in the south that were formerly in rebellion, except that the act of 1890 gave the states cash instead of land. Many of the country’s historically black colleges and universities were established as a result.”

The legacy of land-grant institutions lives on today through generations of education and ideas. One famous CEO took notice last weekend.

Bill Gates, former Microsoft CEO and Co-Founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, commended land-grant institutions, specifically Purdue, during a speech last Friday at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. for the University’s innovation in a new farming technology.

He held up a special bag, made of polyethylene and nylon, that will the protect the crop of black-eyed peas for 10 million Central and West African farmers from being destroyed by bugs.

“It costs less than two dollars,” Gates said. “It keeps out the weevils, and it increases poor farm family’s incomes by over 25 percent.”

Gates referenced the Morrill Act later in his speech, saying “First, higher education should be both liberal and practical, that it should address society’s needs. Second, that all people should have the opportunity to obtain it.”

Contreni adamantly shares Gates’ sentiment. When he was dean of the College of Liberal Arts, he had a paragraph from Section Four of the act printed on the back of his business card. He bolded the phrases himself.

“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.”

Contreni wants it to be clear that the Morrill Act is for much more than an education in science.

“I could show people that land-grant colleges, and universities, did not preclude science and other classical studies and that the Morrill Act actually endorsed “liberal education”! People need to be reminded of this, especially in this day when land-grant universities tend to limit their missions to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines.”

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