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  • Writer's pictureAshish Bhatia

We Don’t Need a Miracle, We Need a Morrill Act

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

Last week, President Trump unveiled a comprehensive tax reform agenda on the grounds that his plan could provide a “middle class miracle.” While the devil will ultimately be in the details on who benefits most of this tax plan, a better usage of government resources was witnessed earlier this fall in New York City.

Just this past September, Cornell University had its official opening of its new campus, CornellNYC Tech on Roosevelt Island. This new school focused on technology, is the brainchild of the prior New York City Bloomberg administration and would not be possible without the future focused thinking of the city government and the incentives of free land and money. While New York City called their proposal “Applied Sciences NYC”, they could have easily called it was a modern day Morrill Act.

In 2010, the Bloomberg administration sought out proposals from major universities hoping to help stimulate the development of the “next high growth company” (like Google or Amazon) in New York City. The Bloomberg administration offered free land on Roosevelt Island and $100 million in city support for the development of a visionary applied science campus. While Cornell’s $2 billion partnership with Technion took the spotlight winning the biggest prize of free land on Roosevelt Island, two other programs were also provided some levels of support: one developed by New York University in partnership with a consortium of five other universities including Carnegie Mellon and Indian Institute of Technology, and another proposal from Columbia University.

Morill Act helps Colleges expand into practical education

The Morrill Act of 1862 signed into law by Abraham Lincoln utilized federal land out west to benefit the development of colleges and universities in each state to support education primarily focused on agriculture and the mechanical arts (more commonly thought of as engineering today). Many great universities were spawned from this federal act, including the University of California, MIT, and even Cornell University.

While President Trump worries about a perceived decline in reputation of the United States on the world stage, fifteen of the top twenty Universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings are US schools and five of those were land-grant institutions supported by the Morrill Act. In total sixty-nine colleges and universities were created because of this act. The Morrill act was a significant boom for higher education in America and helped usher in a new era of expansion of access to education across the US.

While the Morrill Act allowed for variation in how states utilized the funds, the fields of mechanical arts (engineering), agriculture, and military science were the primary benefactors in what the act termed as “practical education” for the ”industrial classes.” This practical education became critical to the United States’ development and rise as the leading superpower. Instead of seeing talent leaving the US to Europe, the US continues to be a draw for the brightest minds from around the world. This concentration of intelligence and research has led to cutting edge innovation, technology, and economic growth.

A Morrill Act for a modern workforce

As we enter what the World Economic Forum is calling the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” where the pace of technological progress outpaces anything seen before, the situation the US finds itself isn’t much different than before. Indeed, we need to be creative in ways that we can revolutionize higher education to ensure the country’s competitiveness and support broader access so that everyone can participate in the digital future of work.

What’s different today is that we have no large swath of idle western land. Yet, one solution would be to utilize the resources we do have. President Trump might start by considering using funds from a planned tax cut. But New York City illustrates another way forward by finding a gem of Roosevelt Island, locked between Manhattan and Queens. If New York City can find idle land, there is no reason that other regions can’t find similar resources. With the decline of the mega malls and brick and mortar—maybe these are opportunities for educational spaces? And with learning moving online, maybe we need to consider resources from a digital perspective like the cloud?

Cornell University is the original land grant university in New York, whose founding wouldn’t be possible without the Morrill Act. So rather ironically, this year, when it receives a second round of support with its expansion into New York City, one cannot underestimate the power and importance of government support of higher education and its ability to push society and the nation further. So what we need now is for political leadership to imagine ways to support our middle class with education—not miracles. What we need now most is another Morrill Act.

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