University land-grant: What it is and what we can do about it?

This month, as a continuation of our “doing a world of good” series, front porch presents what may already be common knowledge, and yet we felt compelled to dig into the history and current situation regarding the university land-grant system and its collateral damage, primarily to tribal peoples across our nation. While stark, there is hope in reparations, albeit two hundred years after the United States’ original misfeasance.

In 1862, the United States was in the midst of a civil war, a conflict over the political control over the economic system of slavery—and the rights of states to determine their own economic structure. While it is commonly stated that the Civil War was about slavery---whether it should continue or end—the driving factors were money and power. Not surprisingly, other foundational changes had been occurring in the US at that time, one of which was the issue of amplifying and supporting higher education, i.e., colleges and universities, that offered a curriculum based on scientific pursuits—or more precisely—agricultural science. The vast majority of the 400 colleges established by 1860 offered classical liberal art courses of study: Only 3% of colleges offered science-based curriculums, and few of those focused on agriculture. Given that the first colleges in the United States, such as Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, and Princeton, were established to educate clergy and the upper classes, classical liberal curricula were these universities’ academic foundation. However, as the US grew and developed, the need for broader and more inclusive (i.e., for the common folk, rather than the elite) opportunities for education and training was apparent—specifically in the areas of scientific (rather than tradition/practices handed down) agriculture.


Later in 1862, the Lincoln administration created legislation that established public colleges for such curricula, while not excluding/ignoring other courses of study. In order to fund such enterprises on a national scale, An Act donating Public Lands to the several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts” was signed into law by President Lincoln. Widely referred to as the “Morrill Act,” which was named after the bill’s sponsor Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont, every US state was granted 30,000 acres of land for each senator and representative in office, the land either located within the state’s boundaries or as “land scrip” in another state. The intent of the Morrill Act was that the sale of these federally-granted lands would be used to help establish and develop what was referred to as a “People’s College.” With the combination of the Morrill Act of 1862, the Hatch Act of 1888 (to establish research stations), the 2nd Morrill Act of 1890 (aimed at the former Confederate states), and the 1994 land grant act (to include the tribal colleges and universities that began forming in 1968), 52 land-grant colleges and universities representing each state, as well as several US territories, operated in part due to these federally-allocated lands.


What could possibly go wrong? The expansion of higher education to include a wider population base in America was a good thing, right? However, deeply disturbing is the fact that many of these acres were not actually owned by the federal government, but were instead lands home to hundreds of indigenous tribes. In essence, the Morrill Act’s so-called donations to the establishment of state universities was actually a transfer of wealth, with the indigenous peoples who lived in these “public lands” being paid very little or nothing at all for this expropriation. As states sold off land (or didn’t), mineral rights and/or other land-use royalties were retained by universities, the funds of which to be used “in perpetuity” to benefit 52 land-grant universities.


In March 2020, High Country News (HCN) released their report “Land-grab universities,” in which the organization presents and explains data gathered from a 2-year study regarding the origin of the lands that were “donated” to the then-fledgling colleges. In this, HCN states that


We reconstructed approximately 10.7 million acres taken from nearly 250 tribes, bands, and communities through over 160 violence-backed land cessions,


a legal term for the giving up of territory.” Divided among mostly Western states, 80,000 parcels of indigenous lands were used as seed-funding for state universities; further, their research uncovered that 16 of these land-grant universities still profit from unsold or right(s)-retained Morrill Act lands. When adjusted for inflation, the grants amounted to about half a billion dollars, a significant endowment for these colleges given that during the early years of these colleges, most had but few students enrolled.


What can be done today? This question and its varied answers have become increasingly more insistent over the past several years as calls for acknowledgment and reparations for tribes’ dispossession due to land grants. In fact, the main intention of HCN’s report is to offer universities the chance to create and utilize mechanisms through which reparations be made. In the ESRI story map “The Untold Story Behind the Brick and Ivy: Cornell University, the Morrill Land Grant Act, and Native American Tribal Cessions,” an in-depth look at the history and collateral damage of land-grant universities is presented as a picture of one prominent university’s continued benefits at the expense of indigenous peoples.


Near the end of the ESRI article, Winona LaDuke, an Anishinaabe activist, gives her perspective on the process of apology, redemption, and healing upon which land-grant universities would be well served to embark--for many reasons. Student activists maintain that as part of this redemption, universities that have or currently benefited from the cessions of indigenous lands offer tuition-free educational opportunities or student loan forgiveness to those of tribal descent. This, it seems, is but a small drop in the bucket for the thousands of people whose lands were appropriated for others’ use. Wider awareness and action is needed to rectify the wrong done by the federal government—at least, as much as it is possible to do so. On the ground, we with the ability can become involved in the process through awareness, education, and action in order to place educational (and other) benefits back in the hands of those from which it was taken.


For further reading, including rectifying actions taken by some land-grant universities, please visit the following:

High Country News "Land-grab universities: Expropriated Indigenous lands are the foundation of the university land-grant system"

WBUR’s conversation with Tristan Ahtone, co-reporter of HCN’s “Land-grab universities” research

Healing Minnesota Stories: Land-grab universities new database chronicles how the U.S. flipped indigenous lands for fledgling universities

U.C. Berkeley’s Centers for Educational Justice & Community Engagement, one university’s acknowledgment and response to indigenous dispossession


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