Morrill Scholars Program Educates Students about Land Grant Mission

Teaching students about the land grant mission of the university through a special program for land grant scholars is unique to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Its director hopes the UNL Morrill Scholars Program grows so hundreds of students can learn about the system founded to provide education to all people, as well as the service and leadership traits of the man who established the system.

"We are the universities of the people, and we should always focus on that. We have a very important responsibility to provide the education to the American citizens who can only make democracy work if they're educated," said F. Edwin Harvey, a UNL Professor of Hydrogeology who is also Director of the UNL Morrill Scholars Program.

The Morrill Scholars Program is an undergraduate learning community and leadership program based on the life and service of Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, who originated the Morrill Act of 1862. That act established the land grant college system in the United States. Morrill was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives at the time he wrote the bill that would become the Morrill Act.

The students in the Morrill Scholars Program study Morrill as a model of leadership, Harvey said. Morrill was a blacksmith's son and blacksmiths were the engineers of the time, creating implements and tools for the farming community. It was a humble beginning, Harvey said, even though blacksmiths were well-respected. Morrill worked in his father's blacksmith's shop as a boy, but when he was 16, he went to work for a local merchant, Judge Harris (who would become Morrill's mentor and later, business partner). During this time, Morrill took the opportunity to discuss politics with the people in the store. "He learned how the common people thought," Harvey said. Morrill was not born into wealth and his father couldn't afford to send him to college, so Morrill taught himself by reading books on a variety of subjects. "When he went to Congress, he did the same thing - he taught himself the things he needed to know to be a good congressman and later, a senator," Harvey said.

Dr. F. Edwin Harvey

Dr. F. Edwin Harvey

The Morrill Act of 1862 established the land grant college system to educate the "industrial class" of people who might not be able to afford an education otherwise. The Morrill Act specified that the industrial class should be educated in the areas of agriculture, mechanic arts (now known as engineering), as well as military tactics, but did not exclude other fields of study. Thirty thousand acres of land was granted to each sitting member of Congress in 1862 as a foundation for each state's land grant institution.

Harvey said UNL Morrill scholars focus on leadership engagement, service and politics. He believes it's important to re-connect students with the land grant university and why it came to be, so Morrill scholars take a trip to Morrill's home town of Strafford, Vermont, study Morrill's biography and learn ways they can apply what they've learned. In the five years the Morrill Scholars Program has existed, 40 students have gone through the program.

Harvey's vision is to have a learning community of Morrill scholars that lives in a dorm together, takes classes and does things together and is very active in the community. He also would like to take the program nationally, establishing a Justin Smith Morrill Scholars Program in each land grant institution. "It would be thought of as the premier service and civic engagement organization across the country," he said.

The land grant institution was set up to provide education for the common people and Harvey said "we've seen that blossom into the giant system we have of more than 100 universities that are doing that. They're doing that not just for white males, but for females and African Americans and Native Americans - it's across the board, a way to educate everyone." The land grant institutions were originally free, Harvey said. Even though tuition has become more a part of the university system, he said "I think it's still the state university where students in the state can come and not be, in any way, fettered by race, gender, sex, creed or anything else."

Students can benefit from associating with researchers that are doing applied, practical research and university programs allow students to become involved immediately. "We put the students not only in the seats, but we put them in the field, we put them in the lab and we put them into the action right away so they can be involved," Harvey said.

It takes a certain kind of professor to want to work in a land grant institution, Harvey said. Professors who come to a land grant university unsure of the mission quickly discover that the mission is service to the people of the state. "You learn very quickly how important what you do is to them, and you sort of develop that mindset early on that 'I work for the citizens of Nebraska, so I should be giving back to them and have my research be relevant to them,'" he said. "I think most of the faculty that I encounter on the campus think
that way."