Law that radically changed UW signed 150 years ago

June 29, 2012

by Bill Graf

Abraham Lincoln

UW-Madison is among the universities celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 to establish the nation’s land grant universities. The legislation broadened UW’s scope and gave rise to the Wisconsin Idea.

Photo: Jeff Miller

The 150th anniversary of a law that radically changed the mission of the University of Wisconsin and gave rise to the Wisconsin Idea is Monday, July 2.

On that date in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which established the nation’s land grant universities and broadened the UW’s academic scope beyond the liberal arts.

With the passage of the Morrill Act, all states were granted blocks of land that could be sold in order to fund universities that would have as their mission the training of young people in the “agriculture and mechanic arts.” Most states created new universities separate from their liberal arts institutions to carry out the land grant mission, but the Wisconsin Legislature decided that the existing UW would receive the grant.

The land grant mission manifested itself here in creation of the university extension system, in which the UW agriculture faculty became county extension agents, working directly on the ground with Wisconsin farmers. And in a discovery that gave a major boost to Wisconsin’s growing dairy industry, Professor Stephen Babcock developed a butterfat test that ensured consistent quality in milk production.

It was this Morrill-inspired emphasis on the practical application of university knowledge to state problems that became known in the early 1900s as the Wisconsin Idea, and it quickly expanded beyond agricultural instruction to include advancements ranging from government reforms to medical breakthroughs. Students, faculty and staff today can collaborate broadly across disciplines because of the Legislature’s decision that the UW would receive the land grant.

“The land grant mission of the University of Wisconsin spans our teaching, research, outreach and public service,” says UW–Madison Interim Chancellor David Ward. “UW-Madison would be a far different, less comprehensive institution today had it not been for the Morrill Act.”

The Morrill sesquicentennial comes, fittingly, at the close of UW–Madison’s observance of the Year of the Wisconsin Idea. That observance marks a century since publication of the book “The Wisconsin Idea” about the 1911 session of the state Legislature, which passed landmark social welfare legislation with the help of UW professors, gave the movement its name.

Watch a speech on C-Span about the future of higher education by former Microsoft chief executive officer Bill Gates. He spoke at an event in Washington, D.C., earlier this week sponsored by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities in celebration of the Morrill Act.