Ask Who Paid for America’s Universities

This article was published May 7, 2020 in the New York Times.

This is how deep it goes. Even an essay calling for a fairer America missed the injustice at the core of the nation’s character.

“From some of its darkest hours, the United States has emerged stronger and more resilient,” the Times editorial board wrote. “Even as Confederate victories in Virginia raised doubts about the future of the Union, Congress and President Abraham Lincoln kept their eyes on the horizon, enacting three landmark laws that shaped the nation’s next chapter.”

Among those laws was the Morrill Act of 1862, which appropriated land to fund agricultural and mechanical colleges — a national constellation of institutions known as land-grant universities. A graduate of Montana State University went on to develop vaccines; researchers at Iowa State bred the key corn variety in our food supply; the first email system was developed at M.I.T. It’s easy to see why The Times looked to the Morrill Act as a blueprint for a more progressive future.

But ask who paid for it, and who’s still paying today.

The Morrill Act was a wealth transfer disguised as a donation. The government took land from Indigenous people that it had paid little or nothing for and turned that land into endowments for fledgling universities.

Read more at The New York Times.

Tristan Ahtone

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