Our Debt to the Future

Michigan State University’s Morrill Hall, c. 1955

I am fortunate to work at an institution that is proud of its status as the pioneering land-grant institution in the United States. But that status, like the word pioneering itself, is not without a troubling history.

I am proud that my institution and its leaders embrace a mission to democratize access to education and to bring the benefits of learning to people living not only in Michigan but around the world. We are working hard to address disparities in access that make it much harder for some to realize the benefits of a university education.

But it is important to remember that our institution and others like it are responsible for those disparities. Not incidentally, but directly.

Land grant colleges in the U.S. were established by the Morrill Act, passed in 1862. The Civil War ended three years later. The act awarded land to the states to establish universities, declaring that:

Morrill Act of 1862

Accounts of the political climate in which the Morrill Act was conceived and passed often note that the ‘Jacksonian Revolution’ played a role in its eventual acceptance. Originally vetoed by President James Buchanan, the act was passed under President Abraham Lincoln in an era of heightened populism that put pressure on an elite institutional culture that carried over from the colonial period. Lincoln’s own political reputation was thought to benefit from this movement to create opportunity for ordinary citizens where, before, only landed elite members of society were welcomed.

But we were very much a divided nation in 1862. Not only North and South, but in many other ways as well. Not everyone would be allowed to enjoy the “higher and broader education” that Senator Justin Morrill foresaw. Morrill’s vision, however noble, also suited the colonial project to settle the lands of the United States and to do so to both the exclusion of enslaved people and the continued marginalization of indigenous peoples upon whose lands the new universities would be built.

In an 1887 speech, Morrill recounted the intent of the law:

At the time of the Morrill Act’s passing, our country was at war over just this question — who should be worthy of such a destiny? And by the time Morrill spoke these words in 1887, we were in the thick of sorting out what new limits on the virtues of freedom would or would not mark our reconstruction from that civil war.

It would be a little more than one hundred years later that Dr. Martin Luther King, speaking at Manchester College, would explicate the legacy of land grant colleges as a key part of the U.S. colonial project. He did so in a powerful speech made just two months before his assassination. In it, Dr. King declares economic justice the next significant challenge for the civil rights movement, describing the structural barriers to progress not just for black people, but for our democracy. He warned that our founding principles were at stake should we fail to address conditions that ensure disparate access to the promises of the American dream.

In one of several speeches on a familiar theme for Dr. King — The Future of Integration — he declared that our nation owes a “debt to the future.” What resonates with me as I re-read his words is just how squarely that debt falls on the shoulders of institutions like the one where I work. It is a debt that goes unpaid yet today.

Martin Luther King Jr. at MSU in 1965

I know that many of us may not be used to thinking of our great public research universities in this way. We don’t think of them as occupying land once populated by indigenous people whose knowledge of how to care for it, and how to garner nourishment from it we sought to recreate for a new scientific era. We don’t think of them as part of a nation-building enterprise open exclusively to white settlers who, having recently been granted free or deeply discounted lands, were “impatient to possess” the skills to transform the bounty of raw resources into wealth and prosperity. We don’t think of these institutions as creating the structural disparities that many of these same schools now aim to remedy in their missions, policies, and curricula.

But this is our history. This is our debt to the future. It is still unpaid.

Dr. King, as he was known to do, left the crowd at Manchester with a note of hope. He said “These problems can be solved…the question is whether the nation has the will” to solve them, or whether we will see other issues as more important, more deserving of our nation’s vast and growing wealth, power, and energy.

This is a question that resonates with me deeply as I go about my work at Michigan State University. I feel especially fortunate to work in an institution whose charter and mission contain within it the means to change things for the better if we — those charged with its care and operation — have the will. Universities are places of learning. This means that we expect to confront our past and learn from it. To see in the aftermath of a mistake an opportunity to improve. We do this as a matter of routine in the pursuit of creating and sharing knowledge. At our best, we cultivate habits of inclusion.

And, like Dr. King on that day in February at Manchester, we are surrounded by something that gives us hope for the future: our students. We see in them a chance to form a new legacy of inclusion, holding ourselves to a higher purpose embedded in the substance of our founders’ vision: to make higher and broader education widely available to all people. Dr. King spoke of the source of his optimism

I too take heart from the qualities I see in the current generation of students. But their success in crafting an inclusive society is far from guaranteed. We must invest in them — our resources, our time, our energy, our care — if we want those priorities to shift. We must pay our debt to the future.

*Photo Credits: MSU Archives & United States National Archives



Hyphenated, father, academic, juggler, cyclist, cook. Philosophy of life: give.

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Bill Hart-Davidson

Hyphenated, father, academic, juggler, cyclist, cook. Philosophy of life: give.