Land Grant Mission Strong in Today's NU System

This article features excerpts from a March 22, 2010 interview with University of Nebraska President James B. Milliken. He explains the land grant system and how it impacts Nebraska.

"The Morrill Act of 1862 - also known as the land grant act - is one of the three most important events in the history of American higher education. It's the first, and it is, perhaps, one of the most important events in the history of higher education around the world. It did several things, but perhaps the most important was to make a statement that higher education is important for a much broader group of people than historically had been the case.

"Higher education had been a privilege; it had been for the wealthy, to train clerics, but it hadn't been available for the public at large. So the land grant act really said 'we're going to create a system, a public system of higher education in this country, for the sons and daughters of mill workers and farmers and others, and provide broad access to higher education.' Now, it also said that 'we're going to create a system of education in liberal arts but also in agriculture and the mechanic arts,' that there would be a practical dimension to this education, which was not the case prior to the middle of the 19th century. So, it has created what is the world's leading model of higher education in this country: the (public) research university in America.

"Abraham Lincoln signed the land grant legislation in the middle of the Civil War in a week with three of the most bloody battles in the Civil War, but still, our government had the foresight to create this great opportunity for future generations, and we are still reaping the benefits of that today.

"Originally, the federal government granted land to every state to use for the purpose of establishing this university. It could be used to help finance the institution, or it could be built on that land. There are all different models across the country for how that was done.

J.B. Milliken

James B. Milliken, President, University of Nebraska


"In Nebraska, five years after the Morrill Act, we became a state - in 1867 - and two years after that, the land grant University of Nebraska was established, in 1869. Land grants, with very few exceptions, are what we consider to be public universities. Generally, they're supported by their states. Nebraska traditionally has a great heritage of supporting higher education. Nebraskans have been very generous since the beginning and have recognized the need for a strong public university.

"Because it's public, the state and the federal government support the institution, but the main distinction is that the state does - and students have a great opportunity to get a first-rate education, to go to a world-class research university and pay a fraction of the cost of their education.

"In the 21st century, economic competitiveness is going to be largely based on talent. In the past, natural resources, location and approximation to a port, transportation were important and are still important today, but the single most important thing is human talent, and universities are magnets for human talent and hubs of creative activity, of innovation, of economic activity.

"We spend almost $350 million a year on research and development activities at the University of Nebraska. It's a great source of economic activity for the state. The estimates are that for every million dollars invested in research and development at a university, you generate more than 30 jobs in the state.

"Education is what's going to make the difference in the 21st century when human talent is the basis for everything."