The Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862 is considered by the National Archives to be one of the 100 "milestone documents" that influenced the course of American history. It shares this designation with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act.
This is the first time the Museum of the Rockies has exhibited an artifact of such recognized national significance, said Shelley McKamey, dean of the Museum of the Rockies.
The act's exhibition is a cornerstone for the inauguration celebration of MSU's 12th president, Waded Cruzado. The investiture ceremony will take place at 10:30 a.m., on Friday, Sept. 10, in MSU's Strand Union ballrooms. The ceremony and all other events associated with the inauguration are open to the public.
"The Morrill Act created the nation's system of land-grant colleges and universities, now numbering more than 100 and including our own Montana State University," Cruzado said. "This piece of legislation profoundly altered the development of American history, bringing higher education to the sons and daughters of the working class for the first time. A significant portion of our nation's prosperity and the strength of our democracy stems from this act."
Cruzado wanted the act for the inauguration ceremonies to focus attention on the origin and mission of MSU.
"Having the document here is an opportunity to reflect on what a profound change the Morrill Act wrought in America," Cruzado said. "By providing access to higher education, the Morrill Act facilitated social mobility and strengthened democracy - and today we are committed to continuing that tradition."
Named after Justin Smith Morrill, the Vermont senator who championed the land-grant concept, the act was passed after the first year of the Civil War. It was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862.
The term "land-grant" refers to the process whereby the federal government granted to the states tracts of land, which could then be sold or leased with the proceeds supporting a public university. The government set aside 140,000 acres for a Montana university, 90,000 while still a territory and another 50,000 when the state was formed in 1889. In 1893, the Agricultural College of the State of Montana, the forerunner of MSU, was established in Bozeman. The state has retained the majority of those lands, which still earn revenue for the university.
"The implications of the Morrill Act for Montana are clear," said Robert Rydell, MSU professor of history. "As the state's land-grant university, MSU has educated tens of thousands of Montanans so they could better themselves in a career of their choosing and improve their personal lives."
The Morrill Act had its impetus in the changing fortunes of the United States in the first half of the 1800s, Rydell said. At that time, industrialization had created a large working class which had no access to higher education. Additionally, the nation was seeing much of its prime agricultural land decline in productivity because farmers lacked the know-how to apply the latest scientific and technological advances to agriculture.
"With the Morrill Act came the realization that America needed a new cadre of educated individuals to move industrialization and agriculture forward," Rydell said. "But the act did not exclude the humanities, the liberal arts and the sciences. Indeed, the act was not just about creating colleges for vocational training; rather it was the product of a movement to educate the citizenry for the good of the democracy as well as for the sake of prosperity."
The Museum of the Rockies had to go through a lengthy loan-request process with the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in order to bring the act to Montana.
"Given its influence on the course of the U.S. and its association with Abraham Lincoln, the act is considered a national treasure," said Steve Jackson, curator of art and photography at the museum, who handled the request. "The National Archives has very stringent requirements that must be met in order to borrow it."
The document is considered invaluable and only put on display for a total of 12 months out of every decade to protect it from fading, said Terry Boone, National Archives conservator. Boone traveled to Bozeman with the document to oversee its installation.
To meet the archive's requirements, the museum built a special temperature and humidity controlled case for the document. Additionally, the document can only be displayed in a room precisely lit so as not to damage the paper or ink. The museum also had to meet the archives' security requirements, Jackson said.
"In terms of logistics it's been challenging," said McKamey, museum dean. "But we were able to meet all the requirements thanks to the talents of our staff."
In addition to the act, the exhibition will discuss the founding of the Agricultural College of Montana and trace its development from a one-room building in a roller-skating rink in downtown Bozeman to the creation of MSU, now a top-tier research university. The display will feature reproductions of historic photographs, interpretive text, and artifacts from MSU's rich history. The exhibition will document the development of land-grant colleges across the nation as well as the ways in which the Morrill Act continues to bring accessible educational opportunities to the citizens of Montana.
"It is a tremendous honor to host an artifact like this," said Michael Fox, curator of history, who holds a degree from Wyoming's land-grant university and is pursuing a doctorate at MSU. "On a personal level, this is very exciting as the land-grant system has played a huge role in preparing me for my profession."
Editor's note: As part of the inauguration celebration for Waded Cruzado as MSU's 12th president, there will be a public reception for the Morrill Act on Thursday, Sept. 9 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Museum of the Rockies. At 6 p.m. there will be a public forum "MSU and the Land-grant Promise - Educating Tomorrow's Citizens Today" in the museum's Hager Auditorium.
The forum will feature:
Margarita Benitez, senior associate, Excelencia in Education; former chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey. Benitez is the daughter of the first Puerto Rican president of University of Puerto Rico.
C. Peter Magrath, interim president, Binghamton University - SUNY; Magrath is president emeritus of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.
Robert W. Rydell, the Michael P. Malone Professor of History, Montana State University. Rydell is co-author of "In the People's Interest. A Centennial History of Montana State University."
The public is invited to all inaugural events, including the investiture ceremony on Friday, Sept. 10 at 10:30 a.m. in the Strand Union ballrooms. For a complete schedule of events, visit: www.montana.edu/inauguration/