150 years ago this summer, the U.S. Congress passed a bill introduced by Vermont representative Justin Morrill, which provided for “the endowment, support and maintenance of colleges of agriculture and mechanic arts.” Shortly thereafter, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law, ushering in the development of one of our nation’s greatest achievements — the nation’s land-grant colleges and universities, the precursors to today’s public higher education system. From the great public institutions of the upper Midwest (think the Big 10 and Big 12) to the University of California system, the Morrill Act called on the states to provide colleges where the “industrial classes” (had Mr. Morrill introduced this bill today he would have likely written “middle class”) could pursue a “liberal and practical education” in the agricultural and mechanical arts. The intent is excerpted from the original Morrill Act:
“…The moneys so invested or loaned shall constitute a perpetual fund, the capital of which shall remain forever undiminished, and the interest of which shall be inviolably appropriated, by each State which may take and claim the benefit of this act, to the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…”
The state legislature of Massachusetts designated two land grant institutions: the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and our academic home, MIT. The imprint of Morrill on our institution can be readily seen in Lobby 7, where it is written: “Established for Advancement and Development of Science its Application to Industry the Arts Agriculture and Commerce.”
Unfortunately, MIT is not living up to these goals set forth by the Morrill act, and we as an institution are therefore missing a great opportunity to contribute to one of the great challenges of our age. Take, for example, the sole land grant institution among MIT’s self-selected peers, Cornell University. At Cornell, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences was created in 1874 in accordance with the provisions of the Morrill Act, and the college currently provides 23 degree-granting majors, from Plant Biology and Animal Science to Natural Resources and International Agriculture and Rural Development. These courses of study and research are what the Morrill Act envisioned, and are at the forefront of understanding some of tomorrow’s global challenges.
Today, the production of food and other agricultural products constitutes one of, if not the, largest engineered systems in the world. According to the World Bank 37.7 percent of global land area is currently under use for agricultural purposes. And with a growing global population this percentage will necessarily increase. Indeed, the human agriculture system is an engineered system at a planetary scale.
The current global agricultural system constitutes the nexus of biological, chemical, civil, environmental and mechanical engineering. From the development of genetically engineered crops to the diversion of entire rivers to irrigate desert areas, the continued development of our global agricultural system constitutes a multi-scale and disciplinary problem with which MIT should engage. It is imperative that our agricultural system grows fast enough to provide food for a growing global population while the trade-offs of land use, water and ethics are addressed. These challenges are large and complex, and perfect for the talented students, faculty, and staff of MIT.
At this time of realignment of our institutional initiatives, it behooves President Reif, Provost Kaiser, and the faculty to consider the addition of a course of study and research in agricultural science and engineering as a way to meet the word of the law and justify MIT’s designation as a land grant institution, but more importantly, to begin to engage in this great challenge of our time.
Addison Killean Stark is a graduate student in Course 2