Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Morrill Land-Grant Act

by Charles W. Steger '69

Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger '69

In this day of more than 4,000 American colleges and universities of all stripes and seemingly universal access to a college education, it might be hard to sense the revolutionary nature of the land-grant college concept. Emerging from a 19th-century American culture dependent on agriculture and industry, land-grant schools were the first higher-education institutions focused on research and improving the economy.

Notably, for the first time in history, higher education was made available to the working class.

The Morrill Land-Grand Act, which established land-grant schools, became law 150 years ago in 1862, during the darkest days of the nation’s Civil War. We have come a long way since.

The social mobility afforded everyone surely has helped strengthen American democratic principles. Indeed, some have dubbed the legislation the democratization of education.

Initially emphasizing agriculture and the "mechanic arts" (engineering) because of the importance these disciplines held for that era's economy, Virginia Tech has remained committed to national competitiveness and growing jobs. Through our many professional advisory boards, extensive economic development programs, ever-evolving academic programs responsive to the business sector and national trends, and faculty research catalyzed into business opportunities, we have evolved the land-grant concept to meet 21st-century needs.

True to the Morrill directive to "expose students to scientific and classical studies," Virginia Tech's broad and diverse curriculum educates students for entry into all aspects of modern life.


True to the Cooperative Extension concept that took university findings from the campus into homes, students and faculty are engaged with the needs and problems of communities here and abroad.


Knowing that the 21st-century economy means a global marketplace, we prepare students for a lifetime of learning and a worldwide perspective. No longer optional, international competencies are imperative. It is the future and we must help students succeed in the global marketplace.


We are still committed to improving agricultural production. However, the agricultural and life-science disciplines now extend into myriad scientific applications that literally grow jobs or establish new industries.


Built on the notion that higher education should take new knowledge and apply it to critical needs of the times, land-grant colleges developed curricula responsive to the needs of industry, agriculture, and society. That principle is now embedded in the land-grant college ethos. Disciplines and fields of study continue to evolve, grow, and emerge.


Today, your alma mater is engaged in disciplines and programs too numerous to catalog here. Consider just a few: the study of high-performance manufacturing, neuroscience, robotics, cybersecurity, safe water, land management, urban planning, or high-performance computing. When coupled with the classics and humanities essential to any well-rounded education, these programs provide immediate job competencies and prepare today’s Virginia Tech graduate for a lifetime of learning.


Finally, one little-known vestige of the Morrill Act remains strong in Blacksburg—the act called for all students to receive military training. Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College took the mandate many steps further, creating a military lifestyle that lives on today in our vibrant Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets.


We know from experience that students learn best by engaging with the world around them. When they grasp our hands-on/minds-on perspective; when they undertake internships, service-learning jobs, and cooperative work/study positions; or when they engage in real-world projects, such as building a solar house or a blind-driver car or creating an inner-city soup kitchen, Virginia Tech students live the reality of the 21st-century land-grant university.

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© 2012 Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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