Returning to Jonathan Baldwin Turner’s Educational Revolution

Across the American higher education landscape there exists a complex ecosystem of institutions competing for students and resources in an environment defined by dynamic economic, political, and societal forces. For regional public comprehensive universities such as Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, increased competition has come from both public and private sectors. The growth of for-profit and proprietary educational institutions emphasizing distance and distributed teaching has been met by the expansion of the publicly funded online educational provider Western Governor’s University. Additionally, in Indiana, the Ivy Tech Community College system has grown from a source of vocational training to its current role as the State’s centrally administered community college system offering access to the first two years of general, professional, and technical education. Concurrently, state lawmakers have demanded greater coordination in the acceptance of transfer credit through the establishment of a state-wide core transfer library as well as the standardization of general education. In order to achieve the economically motivated goal of producing more college graduates, more rapidly, and at lower cost, the state has aggressively supported the expansion of college level courses offered in high schools for concurrent credit. Collectively these systemic changes in higher education call into question the fitness of regional public comprehensive universities as well as their ability to adapt in the face of an evolving higher education environment. The quest for more, faster, and cheaper is not new; rather, it is a recurring theme that has been expressed in different ways at different times throughout the history of American higher education. With each wave of economic, political, and societal pressure American higher education has been realigned and reorganized to meet the nation’s changing needs. It is the purpose of this essay to review one such educational revolution and consider how the challenges of the 21st century can be addressed in an equally transformational way.

The Role of Private Foundations

In addition to the cyclical attentiveness of state legislatures, public higher education has long been a subject of interest of private foundations. At the beginning of the twentieth century Andrew Carnegie established the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for the purpose of conducting research on issues related to educational standards and policy. Instrumental in establishing financial security for college professors through the Teacher Insurance and Annuity (TIAA) system as well as providing access to education through the Pell Grant program, the Carnegie Foundation is primarily known for its system of classification of institutions. Fostering a close collaboration with the Federal Government, the Foundation helped guide the growth and expansion of American higher education throughout the twentieth century and continues to be an influential force in areas such as university-community engagement.

At the end of the twentieth century, the Carnegie Foundation was joined by two high-profile foundations with interest in higher education. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation designated post-secondary educational success as a focus area for its U.S. Program. By identifying four key aspects of higher education performance (college readiness, personalized learning, performance measures, and research and advocacy) the Gates Foundation intends to support the establishment of “a postsecondary system that is an engine of social mobility and economic growth and fuels the nation’s competitiveness in the global economy.” The Gates Foundation is expanding its funding, and its influence, in American higher education while maintaining a suite of highly successful humanitarian and educational efforts in developing countries.

The Lumina Foundation, established in 2000 as part of the sale of USA Group to Sallie Mae, was restructured from the former USA Funds, an organization that at the time was the largest guarantor and administrator of student loans. Unlike the Gates Foundation, Lumina is dedicated exclusively to post-secondary access and success. While the foundation has funded programs supporting access to community colleges, improving institutional efficiency, and reforming higher education financing, Lumina’s primary mission is to fund innovative efforts designed to advance the national level of higher education attainment to 60% by 2025. Private foundations are now, more than ever, playing a leading role in shaping public and governmental expectations for university performance as defined by graduation rates, particularly in technical and professional fields, in order to meet the demands of the globalized, highly competitive, and increasingly information-based twenty-first century economy.

Origins of Federal Involvement in Higher Education

Many aspects of the current challenges to American higher education are not new. During the late 18th and early 19th century the impact of technological advances driven by the introduction of steam power and automation spread across the manufacturing and agricultural sectors of the American economy resulting in demand for a workforce that was trained in the industrial and agricultural arts. During the first half of the nineteenth century American universities were centers of traditional learning focused on classical texts informed by the social and political ideas of the enlightenment. It became clear that the existing educational system had neither the capacity nor the inclination to meet the demands of the increasingly industrialized economy and required both curricular reconceptualization and a significant infusion of resources. Jonathan Baldwin Turner, a graduate of Yale University who upon moving to Illinois became a leading voice in the movement to establish federally funded agricultural colleges, convinced then Representative, and later Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont to introduce legislation in 1857 that would come to be known as the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890.

While the desire to establish agricultural colleges supported by federal funds was highly controversial in a pre-war political climate dominated by sectarian disputes, federal involvement in education was far from a novel idea. Section 14 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 consists of six articles that define the agreement between the original states of the Atlantic seaboard and those inhabitants of the Northwest Territory. Supporters of Morrill’s legislation pointed to Article 3 which states “… knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Additionally, Article 4 provided the mechanism by which Congress could fund the creation of technical and agricultural colleges. “The legislatures of those districts or new States, shall never interfere with the primary disposal of the soil by the United States in Congress assembled, nor with any regulations Congress may find necessary for securing the title in such soil to the bona fide purchasers.” From the Northwest Ordinance the concept of land-grants for educational purposes first took form as the township-based public school system of the Midwestern states. Subsequently, Turner’s advocacy for a land-grant approach to the creation of public agricultural and technical universities was built on the legislative foundation provided by the Northwest Ordinance.

The Morrill Act of 1862

Morrill’s land-grant legislation, signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862, consisted of two important parts. The first, and by far the most controversial, set the parameters by which federal land was to be designated for sale, how the proceeds from that sale were to be distributed among the several states, and what rules of investment the States would be required to observe. Turner had hoped for an equal distribution of funding for each State. Morrill, however, recognized that to secure political support for his legislation the formula for distribution of funds had to be linked to population. Therefore, 30,000 acres of federal land was allotted for each member of Congress and the distribution of proceeds from the sale of those lands resulted in greater levels of funding for the eastern industrial states relative to their western agricultural counterparts. The second, and less controversial, part of the Morrill Act defined the purpose for which the land-grant money was to be used by participating states. “Any State which may take and claim the benefit of the provisions of this act shall provide, within five years from the time of its acceptance … not less than one college…” The purpose of that college, and the reason for a complicated and controversial mechanism of funding through the land-grant process, is derived directly from Turner’s vision for a new system of American higher education. The law provides for “the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” (U.S. Code, Title 7, Chapter 13, Subchapter 1, § 304).

The land-grant colleges were a novel and aggressive response to the demands of a rapidly advancing industrial economy. One of the most important aspects of the Morrill Act resides in its explicit reference to the intended beneficiaries of the legislation. The choice of the phrase “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes” makes a clear distinction between the small number of students of wealth and privilege who had access to higher education during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and those students of lower station for whom higher education had previously not been attainable. By the use of “industrial classes” Morrill was describing the industrial workers of the northeast as well as the agricultural labors of the western states. To fund the education of these “industrial classes” required an innovative approach to financing public education. The 1862 legislation designated over 17 million acres that was sold for over $7 million dollars. While certainly a vast sum of money in the middle of the nineteenth century, the corpus created by the sale of federal land was not sufficiently large to establish and sustain the number of institutions that would have been necessary to bring advanced technical education to all workers of the “industrial class”.

Sustaining Privilege Versus Supporting Populism

How then could the States best respond to the goals of the Morrill Act with the limited funds at their disposal? Some politicians and civic leaders argued successfully that technical curricula should be added to existing institutions. In so doing, the land-grant funds could be directed primarily towards establishing academic programs in the targeted fields since the capacity to provide the supporting liberal education already existed. This approach was most appealing in the eastern states where, for instance, Rutgers and Cornell Universities were expanded to meet the land-grant mission. By interpreting the goals of the Morrill Act in this somewhat narrow way, the eastern states directed resources not towards the needs of the “industrial classes” but rather towards the education and training of the next generation of industrial and agricultural innovators and leaders in academic environments that retained a strong sense of exclusivity.

Conversely, populist sentiments prevalent in the western states guided that region’s philosophical and practical response to the Morrill Act. Rather than expanding existing institutions, many states west of the Ohio River chose to found new universities with a strong agricultural and industrial focus. Iowa State University, Kansas State, and Purdue University were established with the mission of providing a portal to general and applied education accessible to students from a broad range of economic and social backgrounds. As such, enrollments were much stronger in the western than the eastern states during the first decade after the implementation of the Morrill Act – despite the significantly higher levels of funding provided to eastern institutions.

Regional Universities and the Land-grant Tradition

The tensions between populist and privileged models of higher education highlighted by the implementation of the Morrill Act of 1862 continue to be significant factors in the nation’s ongoing higher education conversation. In post-World War II America the primary point of access to higher education shifted from the land-grant colleges that had been established one-hundred years earlier to a group of newly created comprehensive universities with regional missions. Why did this shift in mission occur? Two important factors redirected the access mission from the land-grant universities to the smaller regional institutions.

First, the growth and maturation of the land-grant institutions caused them to take on many characteristics common to their non-land-grant counterparts. That is, they became more selective in their admissions criteria, more global in scope, more comprehensive in curricular offerings, and more theoretical in the approach to the acquisition of knowledge. While land-grant universities continue to offer strong programs in engineering, technology, agriculture, and other applied sciences their focus has changed from undergraduate to graduation education, from applied to primary research, and from their initial role as a gateway to education for the “industrial classes” to highly selective institutions attracting elite students from around the globe.

Second, the institutions founded in response to the Morrill Act were not sufficient to meet the educational needs of the expanding number of college goers in the second half of the twentieth century. As such, some states established robust regional campus systems, linked to their land-grant institution, where the goals of accessibility, a focus on applied technical and professional curricula, and the utilization of scholarly knowledge to the betterment of the community were achieved. In other states the modern “industrial classes” have accessed educational opportunity through state college systems administered independently of the land-grant campus, or through a combination of two- and four-year institutions. Irrespective of the method, the heart of the land-grant mission has passed from the universities founded in the 1860’s and 1870’s to institutions with regional missions founded in the last fifty years.

Returning to Turner’s Vision

As the heirs to the land-grant mission, institutions like Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) now are responsible for achieving Jonathan Baldwin Turner’s vision of a well-educated and technically trained workforce. Turner’s 19th century goals are recapitulated in the 21st century language employed by the Lumina and Gates Foundations. The institutional performance metrics used by the State of Indiana to establish funding levels for regional campuses are philosophically aligned with Turner’s goal of a larger, more technically trained, workforce. While responsibility for meeting the goal of educating the “industrial classes” has shifted from the research universities to the regional campuses, the magnitude of federal funding has not. During academic year 2011-2012 Purdue University received over $215 million in funding from federal sources such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Agriculture in support of primary and applied research, an annual award amount that is more than 30 times the value of the corpus of the 1862 Morrill Act endowment for all the states participating in the land-grant program. During the same year at IPFW approximately $2.7 million in federal funding was received. Of this total more than a third was directed towards non-academic infrastructure improvements, twenty-eight percent towards engagement and regional economic development, eight percent towards research, and only twenty-seven percent ($740,000) towards programs that support academic access and success. That is, federal investment in research at a “land-grant” university was 290 times larger than investment in student learning at a regional campus that now has primary responsibility for achieving the goals of the Morrill Act.

Who will be the 21st century’s Jonathan Baldwin Turner? Who will provide the philosophical and conceptual framework that will motivate transformational federal legislation? A leader is needed to restate the challenges of bringing education to today’s “industrial classes” in order to allow them to more fully access the “social mobility and economic growth” envisioned by the Gates Foundation. We must reconsider how the Federal Government is investing in higher education. Certainly, sustaining our nation’s capacity for primary research is essential to a strong economy. Yet when levels of federal funding directed at supporting the accessibility and quality of higher education sits at a fraction of one percent of research funding it becomes both appropriate and necessary to question if the populist vision of higher education advanced by Turner and advanced into law by Morrill can be achieved by anything short of a revolution in the structure of Federal funding of higher education.

Sapere Aude


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