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MSU history and land-grant identity

The following incorporates material from the “Land-Grant Identity” section of Michigan State University’s strategic plan, MSU 2030: Empowering Excellence, Advancing Equity and Expanding Impact.  

Founded in 1855 as the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, Michigan State University was the nation’s first agricultural college and the vanguard for a national movement to make useful advanced education available to a broad public.

The Morrill Act of 1862 codified the idea of combining “liberal and practical” education for the “industrial classes” and, over time, provided a means of support for at least one college in every state to teach agriculture, mechanical arts and military tactics. Funding came in the form of grants of land from the federal government, giving rise to a shorthand name for both the act and the colleges it supported: land grant.

Land-grant impact

Today there are more than 100 land-grant universities in the United States. They include some of the largest and most research-productive institutions of higher learning in the world. They have educated millions of students and produced leaders in every field. They have driven research breakthroughs that have saved lives and changed the way we live. They have connected with and served communities in their states and far beyond.

Michigan State University remains in the upper echelon of land-grant universities and among the leading universities in the world. Its achievements are as diverse as they are consequential: the university helped develop hybrid corn, make homogenized milk a staple and made the discovery that led to a cancer-fighting drug that has saved millions of lives. And it has educated hundreds of thousands of leaders, scholars and scientists — from Nobel laureates and U.S. senators to countless others who make a difference in our lives in extraordinary ways.

But positive impacts were not the only legacy of Michigan State University or the other land-grant universities that followed its lead. Land-grant universities benefited from the systematic seizure and dispossession of land from Native Americans, and the federal government’s support of the land-grant movement played a part in relentless westward expansion.

The land Michigan State’s main campus occupies was ceded by Indigenous people in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw. These lands are the ancestral, traditional and contemporary lands of the Anishinaabeg — Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples. Land granted to benefit Michigan State in association with the Morrill Act was situated in both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, ceded in the 1819 treaty and two treaties in 1836. But because Michigan State operates in every county in Michigan, with programs, facilities and land across the state, we occupy or use land ceded in every treaty negotiated in Michigan between the late 1700s and early 1840s. Treaties like these were negotiated under duress and were often the result of coercion and violence. Loss of land diminished access to natural resources, and forcible relocation adversely affected Indigenous people’s well-being and cultures in significant ways that reverberate today.

Land-grant future

Michigan State’s early leaders responded to rapid changes in the mid-19th century and society’s needs by creating a new approach to education. Today’s issues are no less pressing: unprecedented technological advances reshaping work and nearly every other aspect of life; widening economic and social inequities; global health crises and climate and environmental emergencies. Such urgent concerns require the talents and gifts of all, making it vital for institutions to take bold steps to advance equity and expand impact.

As the nation’s premier land-grant, Michigan State is committed to being among the most societally impactful universities — one that lifts people up, addresses issues that matter to people’s lives and livelihoods and fuels the pipeline of innovation with discovery and invention.

Today — and tomorrow — we can narrate the next chapter of the Spartans and their accomplishments. With a global reach, vast capabilities and a community and culture dedicated to advancing the common good, the story of Michigan State University continues.

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