The Land Grant Agricultural College Act — known as the Morrill Act and signed by President Lincoln in 1862 — set aside public lands, the sale of which were used to fund public colleges to “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.”
The Act and subsequent funds from the land grand helped save the then-struggling University of Minnesota, which for several reasons, including financial debt, closed a few years after it was chartered in 1851.
“The Morrill Act came at a time when the University [of Minnesota] was in dire straits,” said University Archivist Erik Moore, co-curator of the exhibit, “For the Common Good,” now on display at the U’s Elmer L. Andersen Library. “The University had closed after a short opening as a preparatory department.”
Moore added that the University was hit hard by the 1857 financial panic and was in debt after the construction of its first building, then called the Main Building.
Morrill Act, Legislature helped save the U
Soon, however, the Morrill Act, coupled with action by the Minnesota Legislature, helped save the University.
“The state Legislature, in 1864, brought together a three-member Board of Regents,” said Assistant Archivist Erin George, co-curator of the exhibit. “And their task was to get the University out of its deep indebtedness.”
Led by John Sargent Pillsbury, the Board completed its work, and the University, by the late 1860s, prepared to re-open, with the land-grant mission prominent in its plans. By 1869, the University’s first president, William Watts Folwell, had been hired, the preparatory department was re-opened, and plans were underway to open University colleges with those in agriculture and mechanic arts garnering special attention along with instruction in military tactics.
This early and turbulent time is documented in the exhibit, “For the Common Good.” The exhibit is based on material from the collections of the University of Minnesota Archives, and it examines the ongoing question: How has the University sought to fulfill its role as a “land grant” university.
“For the Common Good” is on display at the Andersen Library’s Atrium Gallery through Nov. 30, 2012. For more information, contact the University of Minnesota Archives at 612-624-0562.