Hail Purdue: Land-grant roots continue to have impact

Purdue Boilermakers can thank the Morrill Land Grant Act for their highly regarded college diploma.

The law, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, gave federal land to states if they agreed to use the land-sale proceeds to start colleges of agriculture and mechanic arts for the children of the working class.

With the Morrill Act’s passage, one historian noted, “higher education in the United States was no longer confined to its earlier classical, elitist beginnings.”

This was crucial for the 19th century economy, which stood at a crossroads in the early days of the Civil War. North and South clashed on the battlefield and in their visions of the country’s economic future — Would it be plantation-based and built on the backs of slave labor or a mix of farming and manufacturing based on the latest innovations in both?

In 1869, Indiana legislators chose Tippecanoe County for this new institution, a condition that came with a $150,000 startup gift from the school’s namesake, John Purdue. Purdue was a Pennsylvania native who moved to the Lafayette area in the 1830s and made a fortune in dry goods, real estate, banking and railroading.

The first classes were conducted in 1874 with six instructors and 39 students. Through time, extension offices were set up in all 92 counties offering ordinary Hoosiers educational opportunities in agriculture, family life and environmental sciences. Curricula expanded, too, encompassing aeronautics, veterinary science, business and technology.

Today, Purdue enrolls close to 40,000 undergraduate and graduate students at its West Lafayette and regional campuses and employs more than 3,000 faculty members.

“John Purdue would be amazed by the size and scope of Purdue today, especially by its global reach,” said Mitch Daniels, Purdue president and former Indiana governor. “At the same time, he would recognize that the core mission remains the same: making education accessible and taking knowledge to the public.”

Purdue was one of 48 colleges created by the original Morrill Act.

“We continue to believe it is our role to open the gates of higher education to all, not just to the privileged, and to concentrate on the skills and discoveries that build a great country and a great economy,” he said.

If you go

Directions: From Interstae 65, go west toward Lafayette on South Street. Proceed for four miles and cross the Wabash River into West Lafayette.

Visitor parking: Grant Street Parking Garage, 101 North Grant St., West Lafayette.

This is one in a series of essays that lead to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016. Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.