Morrill Act History

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The Nation's Pioneer Land-Grant University

More than 150 years ago, Michigan State University pioneered a bold “local experiment” that opened the doors of higher education and soon became a model for the nation—a validation of the worth of making higher education a public benefit.

Our History

On February 15, 1855, just 18 years after Michigan became a state, Governor Kinsley S. Bingham signed legislation establishing the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan—the forerunner of Michigan State University. Carved out of 676 acres of woodlands less than four miles east of the state’s capitol, the college formally opened on May 13, 1857 with five faculty members and 63 students.

Michigan’s fledgling agricultural college served as the prototype for the nation’s “land-grant” institutions created under the Morrill Act sponsored by Justin Morrill, a representative who went on to be a senator, from Vermont.

With eyes on Michigan, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act of 1862, which funded higher education institutions by granting federally controlled land to states for development or sale to raise funds to establish and endow “land-grant” colleges.

Prior to the Morrill Act, Michigan State was chartered under Michigan state law as a state land-grant institution, receiving an appropriation of 14,000 acres of state-owned land to fund its creation. Michigan State was subsequently designated as the federal land-grant college for Michigan in 1863.

Like all land-grant institutions established under the Morrill Act’s “grand experiment” in higher education, Michigan State faced a formidable mission:

  • to democratize higher education and expand its opportunities based on merit, not social class
  • to find practical applications for scientific research and technological innovations
  • to make public service an essential part of higher education’s mandate

MSU Milestones

1855  The Agricultural College of the State of Michigan (later MSU) is established

1857  The college was the first institution of higher learning in the United States to teach scientific agriculture

1862  MSU was the nation’s pioneer land-grant university and the prototype for the entire land-grant system created when President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862

1870  First women students are admitted

1873  First international students enroll in the college

1877  Professor William J. Beal performs first documented genetic crosses to produce hybrid corn, which lead to increased yields

1885  The Agricultural Experiment Station is created

1901  The Departments of Civil and Electrical Engineering are established

1907  The Department of Education is established

1915  The Agricultural Extension Service is created

1930s  Dairy industry pioneer G. Malcolm Trout began developing the process for the homogenization of milk

1931  Michigan State College is accredited by the Association of American Universities

1941  John Hannah, the university’s longest serving president, becomes president of MSU

1957  The position of Dean of International Programs is created, the first in the country

1963  The National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory is the nation’s largest nuclear science facility on a university campus

1970s  MSU professor Barnett Rosenberg discovers the cancer drug cisplatin, which continues to be one of the most widely used and successful treatments for cancer

1972  The Office of Programs for Handicapper Students (now the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities) was established

1990  MSU produces world's first medical cyclotron, capable of treating cancers that resist conventional radiation therapy

2007  Adjunct MSU professor Albert Fert receives Nobel Prize in Physics with Peter Grunberg

2010  U.S. Department of Energy selected MSU to design and establish the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, also known as FRIB, a $615 million facility projected to be completed by 2020, that will advance understanding of rare nuclear isotopes and the evolution of the cosmos as it provides research opportunities for scientists and students from around the globe. A world leader in rare isotope research, Michigan State has been committed to advancing accelerator-based sciences for more than 50 years

2011  MSU is recognized for ninth consecutive year as one of the top 100 universities in the world by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in its Academic Ranking of World Universities. The 2011 rankings also place MSU among the world's top 100 universities in five fields: economics/business, social sciences, life and agricultural sciences, physics, and engineering/technology and computer sciences