Land-grant universities have threefold mission

January 16, 2012
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

Last week, I started down the road talking about the Land Grant Act, which established colleges of agriculture and mechanics.

As you might remember, the Land Grant Act gave 30,000 acres of public land to each state for each of its senators and congressmen. So even the smallest state was guaranteed 90,000 acres. The land was sold and the proceeds were to be used to fund agricultural colleges.

Most of these schools are easy to identify, such as the University of Maryland, Penn State University, Ohio State University, Virginia Tech, University of Wisconsin, Madison, and so on. However, there are others that are not as easily identified, such as Rutgers, Cornell and Purdue. Cornell University is an Ivy League school and an agricultural college.

The story of how it came to be Cornell and not New York state is interesting. According to Cornell’s website, in January 1865, Ezra Cornell mentioned to Andrew Dickson White that his personal fortune exceeded his family’s needs, and he wanted to do something beneficial for the state. White shared his vision of an institution where scientific and technical education would be married with studies in history and literature. A month later, White introduced a bill “to establish the Cornell University, and to appropriate to it the income of the sale of public lands granted to this State.” With White as its president, Cornell University opened its doors to its first students in 1867.

All land-grant universities have a threefold mission, which is resident instruction, research and Extension education. Everyone can grasp resident instruction because someone knows or was a student living on a campus and taking classes. Research is also a little easier to understand, but unlike a lot of basic research that takes place in laboratories, the Hatch Act in 1887 provided federal legislation that created agricultural experiment stations, or what many people call research farms.

The final mission is Extension education, whose charge is taking the knowledge of the university to the people. While I will not spend a lot of time on this aspect since in 2014 Extension will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act, which created Extension, I will give you a glimpse of our work.

Extension also originally had a three-pronged mission. Agriculture for the farmer, the home arts for the farmer’s wife and 4-H for the farmer’s children.

In the early years, the county agent helped farmers improve their production practices, the home-demonstration agent helped in the home with the domestic arts, such as food preservation, which is enjoying a resurgence, and the assistant county agent usually worked with 4-H, which early on consisted of corn clubs and pig clubs for boys and sewing clubs for girls. I know this all sounds very politically incorrect, but it was a different world 100 years ago.

So back to resident instruction, and yes, while the University of Maryland might be more familiar to you because of the basketball or football Terrapins, there are Terrapins studying agriculture, too. As we speak, undergraduates and graduate students are studying animal science, agriculture and resource economics, environmental science, nutrition and food science, plant science and landscape architecture and veterinary medicine.

With this installment, I trust you will look at the land-grant university system through fresh eyes, and next time, this column will look at how the Maryland Agricultural College came into existence.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at


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