I heard a speech by new University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler on Saturday, April, 20. He is an impressive person, a chemical engineer by training, who now runs one of America’s largest, and best universities. He began his speech by telling us, the Men’s Club of the Westminster Presbyterian Church, that Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the North’s worst year in the Civil War, signed the Morrill Act (http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/Morrill.html) in 1862. The act created the land grant colleges, of which, the University of Minnesota is one, by granting 30,000 acres per congressman to each state “not in rebellion against the United States.” The act was extended to Southern states after the war.
The Morrill Act was sponsored by Justin Smith Morrill, a Vermont congressman, (later Senator), Its purpose was to “promote education in agriculture and engineering.” It is the main building block of the rapid expansion of public higher education in the late 19th century.
I thought the comment about Lincoln was very interesting as he was dealing with defeats on the battle field, and difficult generals, and yet had time to plan the nation’s future. He also signed an act in 1863 that created the National Academy of Sciences, whose members “were to promote science, medicine and engineering.” That is leadership.
Kaler then spoke of education today. He pointed out that the cost of education today is less than an inflation adjusted cost in 1967. He urged government to get with it and increase its support for education.
Kaler then spoke of the “achievement gap” or the academic performance gap between racially diverse student populations. He surprised the group by saying that Minnesota had the third highest, trailing only Michigan and Wisconsin. This prompted later conversation on possible reasons, but Kaler did not suggest any. He did mention that in early childhood education, the first three years are the most critical and that it is important to engage the very young in conversation. This can be reading to the child, but I think it is equally important to engage in conversation. We should be able to do this.
The mornings talk covered Lincoln’s focus on education, government’s decline in support for education and the importance of early engagement in the educational process.
I found this discussion to be most important as it indicated that Eric Kaler is continuing the work begun by Justin Morrill and Abraham Lincoln. We should all hope he succeeds, and I think he will.