I have spent my adult life working at three public universities and have had the true privilege of leading those schools: San Jose State University, Towson University and now, the University of Massachusetts.
As steeped as I am in the world of public higher education, I can still be reminded of how special public universities are and of how vividly the impulse that informed their creation lives on.
It was 150 years ago this year that President Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant Act, the landmark legislation that led to the creation of many of our top public universities.
In many ways, the Morrill Act, signed during the darkest days of the Civil War, is one of the most important pieces of legislation in our nation’s history. It represented the democratization of higher education and sought to ensure that higher education would be available to the many and not just be the province of the few.
The goal of Morrill’s bill was to create a national system of public colleges that would transform individual lives and also make our communities, our states and our nation smarter and more competitive. The bill was about impact and change.
All of that — the noble goal of the bill, the hopes its supporters must have harbored — came flooding back to me recently as I traveled the state on a 500-mile bus tour and stopped off at businesses old and new, visited a farm and a human services center, and toured research centers — all of which were shaped or influenced by the University of Massachusetts, an institution born in the Pioneer Valley town of Amherst in 1863, just a year after the Morrill bill was signed. A science center at UMass Amherst today bears the Vermont congressman’s name.
I crisscrossed the state along with the new chairman of our Board of Trustees, Henry M. Thomas III, and spent time at the new Green High Performance Computing Center about to open in Holyoke, a farm in Hadley that called to mind our school’s original agricultural mission, UMass marine research centers in Gloucester and New Bedford that are vital to our historic fishing industry and at the UMass Cranberry Research Station in Wareham, a 100-year-old facility that has helped Massachusetts become the nation’s second-leading producer of the versatile red berries.
We toured the DailyBreak, an impressive digital media company founded by recent UMass graduates that is taking shape near North Station, and met with three amazing UMass Medical School students who are working with restaurant owners in Worcester and potentially across the nation to bring healthier choices to restaurant menus.
We met with young entrepreneurs at the Venture Development Center at UMass Boston and traveled to Lowell to see US Senate candidates debate in a civic center that is now owned and operated by UMass Lowell and is part of the campus’s headlong effort to renew and rebuild its host city and the surrounding Merrimack Valley.
One of the stops I will remember most took place on the last day of our statewide excursion, when we visited People Incorporated, a Fall River agency that provides services for those dealing with developmental challenges and other concerns.
UMass Dartmouth art students have transformed what was a cavernous, inhospitable 20,000-square-foot former warehouse into a warm and welcoming center for its South Coast clients who are learning new skills and coping with life’s challenges there. Three students spent a semester on the magical transformation under the umbrella of the campus’s nationally recognized service-learning program.
As we began to tour the now bright and airy and vastly more functional facility, a client said that in his estimation, there was but one way to describe the project’s effect.
“It changed lives,” he said, with the firm conviction of someone who has been there and knows.
When the young man made that comment, it all clicked — and I thought of Justin Morrill’s bill and of the four small buildings of the original Massachusetts Agricultural College, now UMass Amherst.
I thought of how the five-campus UMass system and public universities across the nation have a singular dedication to their mission of education, research and public service — and felt inspired by having been reminded that our schools, just as their founders imagined, do one thing above all else.
They change lives, as the young man in Fall River said. Everywhere — and in almost every way imaginable.
Robert L. Caret is president of the University of Massachusetts.