Building on the promise of Morrill Act

At the end of William Faulkner’s novel “Absalom, Absalom!,” Quentin Compson, scion of that once-great but now declining Mississippi family and a student at Harvard, is asked by his Canadian roommate, Shreve McCannon, “Why do you hate the South?”

“I don’t hate it,” he replies quickly. “I don’t hate it.” He repeats the mantra several times in his mind, as if trying to convince himself of its truth. The fact that Compson’s family had to send him North for a good education lies at the heart of the Morrill Act’s impact on Southern higher education and the South itself.

Prior to the Civil War the South was functionally nonindustrial, rich in raw materials but utterly dependent on the Northern states for production. It was an educational backwater, with a number of state universities established but operating with very low enrollments of a few hundred.

It was a two-class society built on the backs of slaves and sharecroppers which perpetuated wealth for a very few who were the chief beneficiaries of the narrow window of opportunity for a college education. Higher education was a private and personal good.

The Morrill Act is the second in a pair of documents that revolutionized American higher education by positing the radical idea that there is a public benefit to higher education that extends well beyond the good that inures to the recipient of the degree.

The first was the 1785 charter for the University of Georgia. Taken together with the Morrill Act, our charter is the foundation of American public higher education.

Georgia led the South, and the nation, away from the concept of higher education as a private and limited good.

When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, however, Georgia and the South were in distress. Most of its universities were in the process of closing as students, faculty and even trustees enlisted. Secession left the South with no industrial partner to convert its bounteous raw materials into marketable goods, and the war itself left it with no recovery infrastructure.

No region of this country was in greater need of the promise of the Morrill Act than the South. The Morrill Act gives voice to an ideal of access and equity, of promise and potential, of impact and influence. It joins other voices who have spoken, in Georgia, similar messages.

The voice of Henry W. Grady, The Atlanta Constitution editor, who urged readers to develop industrial capacity, diversify agricultural practices and support education.

The voice of the G.I. Bill, which made college possible for tens of thousands returning from World War II, setting the stage for the greatest economic boom in our history.

The voices of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mayor Ivan Allen who spoke the simple truth that the nation had not lived up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and until it did, it would not prosper.

The question today is what voice will lead us forward in this knowledge economy to build on the promise and impact of the Morrill Act?

It is clear that the University of Georgia has become, through the HOPE Scholarship, private support and integration with economic development efforts, one of the leading institutions in the South. It would not be in that position without the Morrill Act, whose influx of cash in the late 1800s probably saved the institution.

Every Southerner knows the power of the land. Faulkner spoke of his “postage stamp of native soil.” The fact, then, that the Morrill Act’s initial impact resulted from the sale of land – of soil – makes it a truly Southern act of Congress.

Even though many Southern legislators opposed the Morrill Act as the first step onto a slippery slope of federal intrusion, our institutions were probably those that have benefitted the most from its promise. This is not the time to stray from the premise and promise of the Morrill Act.

Michael F. Adams is president of the University of Georgia.