Sevenscore and 10 years ago … is pretty much how University of California President Mark G. Yudof began his remarks on the west lawn of the state Capitol on Monday to mark the sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary, of President Lincoln’s farsighted signing of the Morrill Act, which broadened the reach and the grasp of higher education for more Americans.
Lincoln signed it in the difficult early months of the Civil War and one year before the Battle of Gettysburg. The act designated the land made available by the federal government to use to build public universities, or to sell to them – eventually making possible public university systems like UC.
I moderated the panel at the event, but before I did, the crowd heard from Yudof, from UC Riverside Chancellor Tim White, from California Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross, and from a lanky Sonoma County teacher, Roger Vincent, who often portrays Lincoln.
By the time my panel took the stage, the 16th president’s incarnation was sitting in the audience on a white folding chair under a vast tent outside the Capitol. I searched him out and asked, “President Lincoln – the opportunity for every American to go to college? Really?’’ He nodded. “What a snob,” I remarked [a reference to former Sen. and former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum gibing at President Obama’s goal of making a college education available to all Americans – a gibe based on a statement the president did not actually make].
My panel’s members were UC DavisChancellor and member of the National Academy of Engineering Linda Katehi; Craig McNamara, the president of the state Board of Food and Agriculture; Daniel M. Dooley, senior VP for external relations in Yudof’s office and a former partner in the family-owned Dooley Farms; and Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at UC San Diego.
In sum, I had two farmers and two engineers, which was perfect, because the Morrill Act was originally about educations in agriculture and the “mechanic arts,’’ undertakings which drove the economy 150 years ago and which do a pretty good job in California even today, although the state’s prodigious agriculture industry tends to fly under the radar of urbanized California.
Those were the challenges the panel discussed, along with demographic and social changes to California higher education in the 150 years since Lincoln signed the act. Americans may be even more aware of what they eat, the panelists noted, with the growth of popularity of organic foods and health-conscious diets like First Lady Michelle Obama’s, but even less aware of where food comes from and how it gets from field to plate.
At one point I suggested that the universities’ ag programs might illustrate the changes in agricultural technology by doing their own version of the fabled and much-parodied Grant Wood painting “American Gothic,’’ maybe with the farm-woman wearing a Bluetooth and the farmer holding an iPad showing satellite-generated weather patterns.
The event ended in the heat of a spring afternoon in Sacramento, but not before we’d received gift bags: small packets of California dates, pistachios, almonds, a gleaming green California bell pepper, a kid-lunch-size box of California raisins, and three stalks of asparagus with the sticker, “Product of research by the College of Natural & Agricultural Sciences UCR.’’
So much better than the peanut packets they handed out on the plane on the flight home.