Establishing the Land-Grant System
Agriculture was a major catalyst for Cornell University's creation in 1865.
As the Civil War was raging in 1862, the federal set aside federal land to either be used or sold by states in order to endow public universities that would provide education to the working classes in both liberal arts and practical subjects such as agriculture, the mechanic arts - now known as engineering - and military tactics. These universities would become known as universities.
The idea, noted Morrill years later, was to "offer an opportunity in every state for a liberal and larger education to larger numbers, not merely those destined to sedentary profession, but to those much needing higher instruction for the world's business, for the industrial pursuits and professions of life."
It was a revolutionary idea for a time when a university education, much less a secondary education, was reserved for those of means who could read Latin and Greek. It was a time when farmers made up more than 50% of American workers. Simply put, the act democratized American higher education, providing unprecedented academic access and economic opportunity for generations to come.
But the Morrill Act went beyond just opening the classroom to the community. It required Land-Grant institutions to perform research and engage in outreach, or extension, so that surrounding communities could inform research as much as research could inform the communities. This so-called Land-Grant College Act created a contract between university and society: that discovery would be purposeful and serve the public good.
In 1865, Cornell and his friend Andrew Dickson White persuaded the New York state legislature to locate the state's new Land-Grant university in Ithaca, using Cornell's farm as the campus. The university fully embraced the three-part mission of a land-grant university: education, research and outreach, creating academic programs that would address real-world issues while building on a traditional liberal arts foundation.
The very definition of the self-made man, was taken with this idea of creating an institution of higher learning that combined classical education with instruction in practical skills. It was, after all, the development of such practical skills that had allowed Cornell to go from struggling carpenter to traveling salesman to the founder of Western Union Company, the world's largest telegraph service.
Yet, Cornell and White took the idea of democratizing higher education one step further, founding a coeducational and non-religious institution with a broad curriculum and diverse student body. An institution of higher learning where "any person can find instruction in any study." To this day, Cornell University has kept its promise.
“Coeducation of the sexes and entire freedom from sectarian or political preferences is the only proper and safe way for providing an education that shall meet the wants of the future and carry out the founders' idea of an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”–Ezra Cornell
Just two decades later, the federal government recognized that U.S. agricultural systems would not advance without strong scientific underpinnings.
The Hatch Act of 1887 established research farms – called "experiment stations" – across the U.S. to support research on food production and farming techniques.
Cornell has two federally supported research stations – the Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station, here on campus, and the New York state Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY, now named Cornell AgriTech.
The Hatch Act also created a funding stream to support agricultural research. To this day, Hatch Act funding supports important research at Cornell CALS.
In 1888, as the offerings in agriculture continued to grow in number, the university's Board of Trustees moved to merge the Department of Agriculture (established in 1874) with the departments of agricultural chemistry, botany, entomology and veterinary medicine creating the College of Agriculture. Sixteen years later, the New York state legislature followed the federal lead and voted to provide on-going funding to the college, establishing the New York State College of Agriculture at Cornell.
, who came to Cornell in 1888 and would become the first dean of the newly named college, noted that the Land-Grant college was valuable because it brought ivory tower academia "close to the ground." Unassuming, yet ambitious, the college—working hand-in-hand with farmers and food producers—helped make American agriculture the most productive in the world, greatly contributing to the nation's rise as an economic superpower.
"[This college] was not established to serve or to magnify Cornell University. It belongs to the people of the state. The farmers of the state have secured it. Their influence has placed it here... If there is any man standing on the land, unattached, uncontrolled, who feels that he has disadvantages and a problem, this College of Agriculture stands for that man. – Liberty Hyde Bailey
The third element of our Land-Grant responsibilities arose from the recognition that university research only benefits society when the results are extended to our citizens to help improve their lives.
To that end, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 created home and farm bureaus to bridge the people of our state and the university. Out of the farm bureau in New York came the Cornell Cooperative Extension system in 1955.
The goal of Smith-Lever and the extension system was to ensure that what matters to the citizens of our state informs the research and teaching agenda on campus.
Today, Cornell is the only Ivy League university with a statewide Cooperative Extension system. Extension gives Cornell a presence in every county of New York state and throughout the boroughs of New York City. Each year, extension programs help translate CALS’ research to nearly 2 million residents face to face and millions more through websites and events. Cooperative extension also provides student internships in communities throughout New York state, giving students the opportunity to work directly with farmers and residents on current challenges.
Our Land-Grant status provides important context for the role of agriculture as a major catalyst for the creation of Cornell University in 1865.
As society's needs changed, so too did the "professions of life." As the number and diversity of course offerings and constituencies grew, so did the college's name. In 1971, “Life Sciences” was officially added.
Today, CALS remains at the core of the university’s mission to enhance the lives and livelihoods of the people of New York and others around the world.
As the world changes faster than ever and in more interconnected ways, science must transcend traditional boundaries. That's why the questions we ask and the answers we seek focus on three overlapping concerns: natural and human systems; food, energy and environmental resources; and social, physical and economic well-being. But while the means of focus has changed, the framework for success has remained the same: providing a world-class education, sparking unexpected discoveries and inspiring pioneering solutions.
Rooted in the revolutionary idea of the Land-Grant mission and dedicated to leaving the world better than we found it, Cornell CALS will continue to evolve along with and serve the changing needs of society in the 21st century. After all, "Life. Changing." isn't just a tagline--it's our reason for being.
Last updated June 9, 2023