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Rutgers celebrates 150th year as land-grant institution

The work of two Rutgers professors to grant the University a special status 150 years ago still reverberates in the structure and focus of the University, said Thomas Frusciano, the University’s historian.

The New Jersey Legislature honored Rutgers two weeks ago on the 150th anniversary of its designation as the state’s land-grant institution. Land-grant universities are institutions of higher education in the United States designated by their respective state to receive benefits of the Morrill Acts.

Robert Goodman, executive dean of the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, accepted the joint legislative resolution on behalf of Rutgers on the senate floor.

“[The Land Grant Act] is probably the most important thing that’s happened in Rutgers history,” Goodman said.

Students at Rutgers, especially those in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, should know the roots of how the Land Grant Act changed education at Rutgers entirely, Frusciano said.

Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, which granted each state land to create a college that would teach the basics of agriculture and engineering to the common people, Goodman said.

No land was available in New Jersey, so the proceeds from any land sold in Utah went to the creation of the Rutgers Scientific School.

Rutgers competed with Princeton University and what is now The College of New Jersey, but thanks to the help of professors George Cook and David Murray, Rutgers successfully became New Jersey’s land-grant college and established the Rutgers Scientific School, Frusciano said.

Goodman said the land grant made Rutgers what it is today. Because of the act, Rutgers was able to purchase a farm and created what is now Cook campus.

“Other than medicine, most of the areas of study today are traced back either to the origins of the college or the land grant college,” he said.

The focus of study before receiving the grant was toward the classics, such as Latin, Greek, Literature, Theology and Philosophy. After, Rutgers began to have a strong orientation toward practical education, said Richard Ludescher, dean of Academic Programs in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

A major part of America’s economic development can be attributed to this orientation to practical education, he said.

At the time, most universities were either religiously affiliated or focused in classical studies, Goodman said.

The focus became agriculture and “mechanical arts,” which became engineering. This was an enormously positive change because every state in the country now had at least one school whose job it was to educate people for some skill, Ludescher said.

“When you think about what’s here at Rutgers-New Brunswick … it’s a huge educational melting pot now,” he said.

Without the Land Grant Act, Rutgers College may have never had the aspirations to become a state university, Frusciano said.

“Maybe it would’ve maintained its liberal arts focus and become another liberal arts college, like Amherst or Hamilton College,” he said.

The mission of the land grant is to find out what local skills the state needs and educate people with useful skills, Ludescher said.

In the past, agriculture was the main focus. Farming became a necessary skill. The land grant established extension services, which became a service where people would use the knowledge that they learned at the University to help educate farmers.

“In New Jersey in the 21st century, the interpretation of what the extension services does goes way beyond farming now,” Ludescher said.

The programs and research opportunities at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences can be attributed to Cook and his persistence in granting Rutgers land-grant institution status, Frusciano said.

So much good has come from the land grant — and after 150 years, students should be aware of how it all began, Frusciano said. It was an important landmark in the growth of this institution.

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