The View from T-Hall

What Would Justin Morrill Think?

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The recent commencement ceremonies at the University of New Hampshire's campuses in Durham and Manchester, as well as the UNH School of Law in Concord, offered a time to celebrate our accomplishments and contemplate the changes to come.

At the university's 142nd Commencement, in Durham, we awarded more than 2,300 undergraduate and 500 graduate degrees. Among the graduates were 60 veterans. The keynote speaker was Ron Noble '79, the first American to lead the international police organization Interpol. At UNH Manchester, more than 250 undergraduate and graduate degree recipients heard Steve Norton, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, give the keynote address in Manchester's Arms Park. And, in Concord, Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) addressed the new graduates at UNH School of Law's 37th Commencement ceremony.

The university's commencement puts me in mind of another milestone being celebrated this year in higher education: the 150th anniversary of the land-grant college system. I wonder what U.S. Senator Justin Smith Morrill would say about our handling of his legacy.

Morrill, the self-educated son of a blacksmith, was the visionary behind the Land Grant Act, which offered states the opportunity to create land-grant colleges to give farmers, mechanics and laborers access to higher education. (He was also the namesake for UNH's own Morrill Hall.) In the process of teaching about agriculture and engineering, these schools would also drive research that revolutionized American agriculture and industry.

Prior to the act's passage, higher education was largely the domain of the wealthy, and almost entirely detached from the needs of society.

Clearly the country has exceeded Morrill's expectations in many ways over the last century and a half, and for this he would rejoice: for generations, our land-grant institutions have provided access to higher education to those who could not otherwise have afforded it. And research at land-grant colleges has grown exponentially in those years, driving innovation and powering the economy. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Justin Morrill helped build a great nation.

But Morrill would be deeply disturbed to know just how imperiled his vision is today. Draconian cuts in state support have saddled students with crippling levels of debt—and even put higher education out of the reach of some families. These same cuts, by undermining our ability to support basic and applied research, threaten to blunt America's competitive edge in the knowledge-driven 21st century.

At land-grant colleges, we are responding by reimagining our institutions, raising alternative revenues, building public-private partnerships, leveraging intellectual capital and increasing the reach of capital campaigns. We are also cutting expenses, by using technology and reengineering administrative processes.

These efforts, while helpful, will not be enough. Despite our best efforts to control costs and generate new revenues, we cannot meet our historic mission without state support. The numbers just don't add up. If Justin Morrill were alive today, he would argue passionately that higher education is a public good, and remind us that America will not survive, much less thrive, without an educated citizenry.

I invite you to help me deliver this message loudly and clearly in your community and to support UNH by whatever means you can. Let's keep UNH strong so that future generations will have the same opportunities we have had. ~

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