The Legacy of the Land Grant

Since its beginning in 1911, OSU Extension has sent OSU faculty into the field to deliver education where it counts. (Photo courtesy of OSU Special Collections and Archives Research Center.)

A historic shift in education and engagement continues to serve our communities.


Imagine a country where enemy combatants terrorize citizens at home and at work; where civil hostilities tear apart families; and where the largest share of the nation’s treasury fuels domestic warfare. That place was the United States in 1862. At that time, during the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln signed the law that created the states’ land grant universities. Weeks earlier, Lincoln had signed the Homestead Act and established the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It would seem that the nation’s leaders, at a moment of national crisis, saw education and agriculture as necessary to national security.

How much do we still depend on education and agriculture? What is the legacy of the land grant university in the 21st century?

Before 1862, higher education was a privilege for the wealthy, patterned after the European class system. A college education was generally available if you were wealthy, white, and male. You would study Latin, literature, law, or the classics at a private school. Education of the working class was left to guilds, where tradesmen instructed apprentices, or to seminaries, where clergymen taught religious novices. In the young United States, a few well-educated planters studied scientific agriculture, but generally it was the pioneering yeoman farmers who tilled the soil in the same way their grandfathers had back in the old country.

The idea of education for all people was revolutionary. There was nothing else like it in the world. At the beginning of the industrial revolution and the massive migration into the western United States, the land grant universities represented a radical idea: public education is fundamental to the nation’s economic development.

Oregon Agricultural College was established in 1868 with funds from the sale of 90,000 acres in southeast Oregon that had been granted to the state by the federal government. The first class—one woman and two men—graduated in 1870 with Bachelor of Science degrees, the first degrees granted in the western United States by a state-supported university. OAC (Oregon Agricultural College) eventually became OSU (Oregon State University) in 1961, and it remains a leader among the nation’s land grant universities.

With the radical idea that research was fundamental to the nation’s economic development, Congress passed the Hatch Act in 1888, which established a network of Agricultural Experiment Stations. And in 1914, at the onset of World War I, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act that established the Extension Service to deliver research-based education to all people, reinforcing the idea that education is fundamental to a strong nation.

The Grand Challenge of agriculture is how to feed and care for a world population that is expected to reach 9 billion by mid-century.

Oregon State University is Oregon’s land grant university, and the radical ideas of public education, scientific research, and engagement with the public are written into its mission. Oregon’s Agricultural Experiment Station has 14 field stations across the state, where scientists are improving crops and ways to keep water clean and soil healthy. OSU Extension has faculty working in every county in the state, where they deliver research-based education to communities, industries, and youth.

The three-part mission of learning, discovery, and engagement is fundamental to OSU as a land grant university and gives our work a sense of purpose and meaningful contributions to society. Those contributions have helped create a food system in the United States where less than two percent of the population is able to feed the other 98 percent of the population, in addition to huge numbers of people around the world.

“The Grand Challenge of agriculture is how to feed and care for a world population that is expected to reach 9 billion by mid-century,” said Dan Arp, dean of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station. “We must ensure a sustainable planet with clean water and air, healthy soil, ample energy, and a sense of dignity in work and life. These are the goals of our land grant mission of research, teaching, and extension.”


The Roots of a Revolutionary Idea

Support for education and agriculture has long been seen as necessary for a secure and democratic nation.

In forming a vision for the new nation, George Washington said, “It will not be doubted that, with reference to either individual or national welfare, agriculture is of primary importance … Institutions promoting it grow up, supported by the public purse.”

While drafting the nation’s Constitution, John Adams wrote: “The education of a nation, instead of being confined to a few schools and universities for the instruction of a few, must become the national care and expense for the formation of the many.”

And Thomas Jefferson called for “a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people; … the tax that will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid … if we leave people in ignorance.”

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