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Jahn to speak at White House for Morrill Act’s anniversary

January 9, 2012 By Bill Graf

The 150th anniversary of a law that changed the mission of the University of Wisconsin and gave rise to the Wisconsin Idea is being marked in 2012, and a UW–Madison faculty member and student will be participating in a White House event that coincides with the occasion.

Molly Jahn, a professor and former dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, will speak on the civic mission of higher education at an event on Tuesday, Jan. 10, hosted during the Morrill Act’s anniversary year by the White House Office of Public Engagement with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Jahn will represent the land grant universities created by the act, which was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

“The Morrill Act and related legislation, conceived at the height of the Civil War, was certainly about better lives for individual citizens, but also played a critical role in recognizing the link between higher education and a vibrant democracy,” Jahn says. “Across our academic missions as part of the famous Wisconsin Idea, we have been and continue to be a pioneer in fulfilling these historic commitments to our citizens and our nation. It is an honor to be a part of this important event, looking forward at a time of great challenge and opportunity for U.S. public higher education.”

In addition, CALS sophomore Dantrell Cotton will be on one of the plenary panels that immediately follows a major White House keynote address. Cotton was valedictorian at Chicago’s High School for Agricultural Sciences, a public high school on the south side of Chicago that exemplifies the ideals for education that are the foundation for the Morrill Act.

Portions of the event, scheduled for 1 p.m. CT, including the panel with Jahn and Cotton, will be live streamed at (see event program – PDF).

With the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862, all states were given blocks of land that could be sold off by legislatures to fund universities that would have as their mission the training of young people in the “agriculture and mechanic arts.” Most states created new universities separate from their liberal arts institutions to carry out the land grant mission, but the Wisconsin legislature decided that the existing UW would receive the grant and expand its academic scope.

The land grant mission manifested itself in creation of the university extension system, in which the agriculture faculty became county extension agents, working directly with Wisconsin farmers. And in a discovery that effectively launched Wisconsin’s dairy industry, Professor Stephen Babcock developed a butterfat test that assured dairies that farmers were not watering down their milk.

It was this emphasis on the practical application of university knowledge to state problems that became known in the early 1900s as the Wisconsin Idea.

Coincidentally, but meaningfully, the Morrill sesquicentennial comes during UW–Madison’s observance of the Year of the Wisconsin Idea in 2011-12. That observance marks a century since the book “The Wisconsin Idea” about the 1911 session of the Wisconsin legislature, which passed landmark social-welfare legislation with the help of UW professors, gave the movement its name.