President Yudof speech - April 30, 2012
As prepared for delivery
President Mark G. Yudof
“Beyond the Morrill Act”
A Morrill Act for the 21st Century
West Lawn of the Capitol Grounds
April 30th, 2012
Thank you, Barbara. And thank you, Secretary Ross, for your wonderful remarks.
I’d also like to thank President Lincoln for joining us today.
You know, back when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas would meet for their debates, the format called for three hours of non-stop rhetoric. You’d be standing outside on a hot afternoon, listening to Douglas speak for an hour, then Lincoln speak for ninety minutes, and then Douglas would respond for thirty minutes, and so on.
Well, I have some good news for you. This program is not going to mimic a Lincoln-Douglas debate.At least, not my portion of it. Instead, I’ll use as my model the latter-day Lincoln, whose Gettysburg Address was three minutes long.
Now, I’m here this afternoon to tell you what I believe is a fundamental truth about the Morrill Act:
From my perspective, the Morrill Act was a catalyst. It transformed not just California, but the entire United States, from a divided, underdeveloped society into one that is vigorously diverse, competitive, and advanced. And perhaps most importantly, it made mass education—which is the bedrock of both national, and individual, progress—the norm, and not the exception.
Now, I think most people recognize this fundamental truth about the Morrill Act. But in case you’re not convinced, I’m going to give you three proof points:
The first is the landmark, long-standing partnership between California agriculture, and the University of California.
Threescore and seven years ago, I was born in West Philadelphia, a place that could not be more different than the broad, fertile valley we stand in today. It was, and is, intensely urban. And while I hear things have changed a little, when I was growing up, our vegetables came from the frozen food aisle—not the farmers’ market, or the CSA box.
California’s Central Valley, on the other hand, is rightly called the breadbasket of the world. It produces an unparalleled cornucopia of food, from tomatoes to almonds, grapes, olives, peaches, and pistachios (my personal favorite, I might add).
So when I came to California four years ago, it was with the perspective of someone who knows what it’s like not to have tasty, beautiful strawberries down the street at the farmers’ market—strawberries developed by the local land-grant university, no less.
But my perspective on the enduring value of land-grant universities also comes from hands-on experience, and not just from what I missed in my lunchbox. For five years I served as President of the land-grant University of Minnesota system, where I encountered firsthand the perseverance and innovative thinking of America’s agricultural community.
(I might add that I was the frequent recipient of bottles of maple syrup from Minnesotans’ family sugar shacks. I can’t say that I complained.)
When I arrived in California, however, I quickly found that nothing compares to this state’s agricultural legacy, and to the forward-thinking leadership of its farmers and ranchers. There really is no comparison. California is at the forefront of almost every movement and industry—and agriculture is no exception.
Numbers don’t always tell the whole story, but in this case, they’re instructive. California is this country’s leading agriculture state—Texas and Iowa are a respective (and somewhat distant) second and third. California grows 50% of this country’s fruit and vegetables, including 90% of the nation’s strawberries and almost 100% of its walnuts. It produces more than 400 crops, a diversity that is unparalleled anywhere in the world. And the numbers go on and on and on.
Now, agriculture’s close, intertwined partnership with public higher education is not always obvious to many Californians. And this is unfortunate, because it is this partnership that made California agriculture the multi-billion dollar industry it is today, and that made UC the greatest public university in the world.
It’s no coincidence that Lincoln himself spoke of the potential for such a mutually beneficial relationship. As he said, “no other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, as agriculture.”
My second proof point is that land-grant universities are integral to the public good.
You see, this country has long depended on the cultivation of strong public-private partnerships. It’s benefited significantly from them, too. One need look no farther than another Lincoln legacy, the transcontinental railroad, for evidence of this. The railroad was built by both government bonds and private rail companies. And the benefit to the American public and its post-Civil War future was simply tremendous.
Land-grant universities are also public-private partnerships. They depend on both private and public contributions—in the form of individual tuition and taxpayer support, federal grants and philanthropy. And they contribute overwhelmingly to the public good through broader economic prosperity, an informed democracy, and cultural transmission.
And my third proof point is this:
Since Lincoln signed it into law, the Morrill Act, and its legacy of mass education for all qualified Americans, has survived countless national crises and transition periods.
Everyone here knows that times are tough right now. But that’s especially why now is not the time to throw in the towel and call it a day. The legacy of the Morrill Act is too important to who we are as a society. And it’s one of the only time-tested frameworks we have for building a prosperous future.
Because if there’s one lesson I see from our history, it’s this: particularly when times are hard, we need to invest in education. Lincoln knew that when he signed the Morrill Act in the darkest days of the Civil War. John Adams knew that when he charged the Massachusetts state legislature with the stewardship of public schools during the Revolutionary War. Eisenhower knew that during the Cold War, when he signed the National Education Defense Act.
Call it the American way, if you want, but there is one thing that has set this country, and this state, apart, and it’s this: our willingness to step up and take a stand for education and all that it brings. Even when times are hard.
 Abraham Lincoln, “Address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, September 30, 1859”, in Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865, sel. Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: The Library of America, 1989), 99.