Closing the Morrill Act Gap

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, a law that set a foundation for our nation’s public university system by establishing the first set of land-grant universities. And while some of America’s greatest institutions of higher education were created by the act, it is worth reminding Americans that not one but two Morrill Acts were enacted in the last half of the 19th Century.

The Administration Building at Kentucky State University

Kentucky State University, an HBCU, was established by the second Morrill Act in 1890. Photo courtesy of the University of Kentucky Library.

Twenty-eight years after the first Morrill Act, a second Morrill Act established many of the nation’s public historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), including Alabama A&M University, Kentucky State University, and North Carolina A&T State University.  The states were given a choice to either admit African Americans, or create separate institutions. Eighteen HBCUs were created in response to that choice.

So this year, we indeed celebrate the first Morrill Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862. But we also recognize that it gave a head start of nearly three decades to 58 originally all-white universities and vestiges of the gap in resources continue today. This year’s celebration is a great time to look ahead. What will public higher education look like in the year 2040?  That will be the year when we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Second Morrill Act of 1890.  To what degree will the “Morrill gap” still exist?  Will we see any measurable institutional gap closure in what for most of 150 years has been a racially dual state university system? Will South Carolina State University grow in measurable ways toward the stability and agility of Clemson University? And will Tuskegee University achieve the dream of its founder Booker T. Washington and become an international research institution like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?

Realizing the best answers to those questions will depend on the moves made by sharp HBCU trustees and presidents. It will depend on their ability to successfully pursue capital enlargement, campus enrichment, strategy development and perception enhancement locally and nationally for HBCUs. It will depend on state governments to correct funding imbalances that continue to perpetuate historical inequities.  And it may also require the federal government, led by the Department of Education, to continue to advance HBCUs in the most creative and innovative ways.

So, here’s to the hard work required to ensure that in 2040, the Morrill Act gap will finally be closed and HBCUs will be celebrated as truly world-class institutions.

John Silvanus Wilson, Jr. is Executive Director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs