USU celebrates land-grant legislation

USU celebrated the democratization of knowledge through land-grant universities Friday at the 2012 Founders Day banquet. The Morrill Act, which will turn 150 in July, established the land-grant program, which would give federally controlled land to states for the development of low-cost universities. “In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law, and the lives of people in America changed forever,” said Mary Sias, the president of Kentucky State University and Founders Day’s featured guest. “The act was really about access.” At the time of the Morrill Act, higher education was only an elite enterprise, Sias said, and most of the students were white, wealthy males. In 1870, of the 63,000 students enrolled in college, women made 21 percent. Only 1 percent of the entire college-age population was getting higher education, she said. “The Morrill Act knocked down those barriers,” Sias said. Sias spoke to a sold-out crowd of students, staff, faculty and alumni of the impact land-grant schools have had in her life. Sias attended elementary school in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1950s. For the first three years of her public education, she was only able to attend a half-day of school, because the school for African-Americans in Jackson wasn’t big enough for students to all attend a full day. The schools were lacking in other areas, as well, she said. The books used were leftovers from the white schools, she said, and often parts were missing. Sias attended college because at a time of intense racial segregation, her parents wanted a better life for their children, she said. “I remember going with them to try to vote. And they had poll taxes, and they had literacy tests,” Sias said. “I remember the many times they were turned away, and I remember the discussions in the car about how important it was to them to have a right vote, because they wanted a better life for their three children.” Her parents weren’t college graduates themselves, and only had an eighth-grade education, she said. “It wasn’t because they weren’t smart enough,” Sias said. “In fact, they were very smart. But in Mississippi, your public education stopped at the eighth grade if you were black. When she went on to receive a higher education, she didn’t realize she was breaking racial boundaries, she said. “I think if I had been told I had a 6-10 percent chance of graduating, that might have made a difference. But my parents said, ‘You’re going to college,'” Sias said. Sias earned good grades in college and applied for graduate school, she said. “I sent out what seems like 50 applications to graduate schools,” Sias said. “Guess which were the ones I heard from? Michigan, MIT, the University of Wisconsin at Madison — all land-grant institutions.” Sias obtained a fellowship to pay for her continued education and was accepted to the sociology program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. At the school, she learned what a land-grant institution does as she saw doctors working in low-income neighborhoods, engineers designing roads and bridges and sociologists formulating policies to help rural towns and communities participate in elections, Sias said. Through the land-grant school, Sias had opportunities she might not have had otherwise, she said. She published research worked with prominent scientists and spent a year in India and Nepal, she said. “I learned to speak Hindi fluently,” Sias said. “I understood what it meant to be someone who was in another country, listening to someone who didn’t understand that you understood what they were saying when they talked about you.” Sias said these experiences have made an impact on those she loves. “My life changed, and the life of my family and my child changed because of a land-grant institution,” she said. “The breadth of the impact has not only affected me, but everyone whose life I have touched.”

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