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The Morrill Act at 150 Years: We Need a New Morrill Act for the 21st Century

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One hundred and fifty years ago this month, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, sponsored by Vermont Congressman Justin Morrill. Officially titled “An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts,” the Morrill Act provided each state with 30,000 acres of Federal land for each member in their Congressional delegation. The land was then sold by the states and the proceeds used to fund public colleges that focused on agriculture and the mechanical arts. Sixty-nine colleges were funded by these land grants, including Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. These colleges played a key role in enabling the United States to later lead in the mechanization of agriculture and the industrialization of the economy.

But today, the challenge is even greater as America is competing against a wide array of nations seeking to win the race for global innovation advantage, including in manufacturing. A new Morrill Act for the 21st Century, can be part of the solution. But this one should be focused on revitalizing U.S. manufacturing. In the 2000s, American manufacturing suffered its worst decade since at least WWII. One-third of manufacturing jobs disappeared and manufacturing output declined by over 10 percent as U.S. manufacturing became less competitive internationally. If the United States is to regain manufacturing jobs and with it overall economic vitality, the federal government will need to focus more on supporting manufacturing innovation. One way to do this is to enlist U.S. research universities.

To do that a new Morrill Act should have the federal government support the designation of a core of approximately twenty leading “manufacturing universities”. As part of this designation, these universities would do several things. First, they would revamp their engineering programs much more around manufacturing engineering and in particular work that is more relevant to industry. This would include more joint industry-university research projects; more training of students that incorporates manufacturing experiences through co-ops or other programs; and a Ph.D. education program focused on turning out more Ph.D. engineering grads who would work in industry. These universities would view Ph.D.s as akin to high-level apprenticeships (as they often are in Germany), where one can’t get a Ph.D. unless one has done some work in industry. Likewise, criteria for faculty tenure would consider professors’ work with and/or in industry equally as much as their number of publications. In addition, their business schools would focus on manufacturing issues, including management of production, and integrate closely with engineering.

One, but not the only model, is the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, which re-imagined engineering education and curriculum to prepare students “to become exemplary engineering innovators who recognize needs, design solutions, and engage in creative enterprises for the good of the world.”

As part of this designation, academic institutions would receive an annual award from the National Science Foundation, ideally at least $25 million a year, plus prioritization of their projects in the awarding of National Science Foundation (NSF) grants. One can imagine a number of leading engineering universities that might embrace this designation. If we could think and act boldly for the good of the next generations of Americans 150 years ago, hopefully we can do the same today.

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