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UC and 'President Lincoln' celebrate dawning of public universities

May 1, 2012

Man dressed as President Lincoln with UC President Mark Yudof

Roger Vincent, a professional Lincoln presenter who saluted UC "as the embodiment of my hopes and dreams  way back in 1862," helped celebrate the event with UC President Mark G. Yudof. (Dave Jones/UC Davis photo)

SACRAMENTO — UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi joined UC President Mark G. Yudof and President Abraham Lincoln here on Monday (April 30) to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the federal law that launched dozens of public universities across the country.

Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, granting tens of thousands of acres to the states — land to be sold, with the proceeds used to build public universities.

UC, one of these land-grant schools, organized Monday’s sesquicentennial observance, held under a tent on the west side of the Capitol. An audience of about 100 included representatives from UC campuses and the division of Agricultural and Natural Resources.

Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, gave the keynote address, while an actor portraying Lincoln saluted UC “as the embodiment of my hopes and dreams … way back in 1862.”

Katehi said the act gave people the opportunity to be educated and to contribute to the economy, “critical for a country that was divided and needed to find reasons to come together as one.”

The chancellor, on a panel discussing “A Morrill Act for the 21st Century,” called for a national strategy for higher education. California has its master plan, but is making a big mistake by “walking away from it,” she said.

With enrollment being limited, Katehi said, “I wonder … what is going to happen to those other students who cannot enter any of the systems (UC, California State University and California Community Colleges). Do they stay uneducated?

“And, then, if you were to extend that thought, would it not be a great shame for us as citizens of this state to have to import college graduates from other states because we cannot afford to educate our own?”

Yolo County farmer Craig McNamara, a UC Davis alumnus (1976) who serves as president of the state Board of Food and Agriculture, said a 21st-century Morrill Act would put a renewed focus on agriculture.

“We need 100,000 new farmers in the United States, and we need them soon, very soon,” said McNamara, repeating U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s call to action.

Katehi said UC Davis today exemplifies the land-grant mission “because we work with the community; we have people out there every day who work with the farmers; we have students, 42 percent of our students, who are Pell Grant recipients.”

“A very large percentage of our students are the first in their families coming to college,” she continued. “So we have really provided these wonderful opportunities to people who will then become the future leaders. And that’s what the public university is all about.”

Yudof described the Morrill Act as a catalyst that transformed California and the nation, and, in particular, a catalyst for UC’s long-standing partnership with California agriculture.

The Morrill Act specifically called on the land-grant schools to teach “agriculture and the mechanic arts,” while not excluding other scientific and classical studies.

UC Riverside Chancellor Tim White noted achievements around the UC system in medicine, biotechnology, telescopes, and food and agriculture — mentioning UC Davis for its leading role in strawberry, tomato and wine grape development, and for discovering the heart-healthy compound in chocolate.

“So, you see, quite literally, we’ve developed something for everyone,” White said. “From the soil under our feet to the ozone in the atmosphere to the galaxies beyond, we’ve contributed to our understanding of the universe.”

Ross, secretary of the state food and agriculture agency, urged Californians to be as visionary as the people of previous generations: “If ever there were a time to rededicate ourselves to the Morrill Act, to the public investment in research and education in agriculture and the sciences, it is now.”

Lincoln, seven score and 10 years ago, could hardly have known the discoveries that the Morrill Act would foster.

But, as portrayed by Roger Vincent, Lincoln said he knew the act would forever support his educational creed: “The right to rise.” It is what makes the American experiment so remarkable, Lincoln said: “That each individual can start at the bottom of society, and he or she has the right to rise.”

Another speaker, Rose Hayden-Smith, a 4-H youth, family and community development adviser for UC Cooperative Extension, Ventura County, put it this way: The Morrill Act offered educational opportunity to the farmer’s child and the farmworker’s child alike.

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