Founded in Columbia in 1839, the University of Missouri was designed to serve the state. In his book “Serving the University of Missouri,” James Olson called the school the oldest public university west of the Mississippi River.
Despite its comprehensive aim, the school’s rural location and sectional divisions the Civil War exacerbated initially made it difficult for the university to establish itself as a statewide presence, Olson wrote.
A new mission changed the university’s course in 1870. A school of mines and metallurgy was established in Rolla, and the state legislature gave MU land-grant status. Created with the passage of the Morrill Act of 1862, the nation’s land-grant institutions were intended to bring education in agriculture, engineering and military science to the residents of the state.
The act gave federal land to each state left in the Union. Proceeds from the sale of the land were meant to pay for the establishment of colleges. Rather than creating an institution, Missouri’s legislature opted to grant the status to the Columbia school.
The Morrill Act changed not only MU’s course but also that of higher education across the nation, said Ron Turner, executive vice president of the UM system.
“It’s incredible, the vision that this legislation advanced,” Turner said.
He added that before the establishment of the land-grant institutions, higher education often was not viewed in terms of practical benefit.
“The purpose of the Morrill Act of 1862 was to recognize that the benefits of higher education should not be reserved for the privileged,” Turner said. “Prior to that time, public support and the recognition of a public benefit for higher education were somewhat limited.”
According to the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, there are 106 land-grant institutions, with at least one in every state. A Second Morrill Act, passed in 1890, provided further money for the schools and allowed states to create or designate separate land-grant schools for blacks.
Missouri gave Lincoln University in Jefferson City that designation.
Lincoln engages in extension in selected areas of the state, Turner said, but its mission is not as broad as MU’s. No other school in Missouri carries the responsibilities of the UM System, Turner said.
“The University of Missouri is the only public, research, land-grant university with an obligation to serve all of the people in the state of Missouri,” he said.
“Missouri has great community colleges, public and private colleges and universities and outstanding private-research institutions. But there is only one that has the statewide, comprehensive, teaching, outreach and research mission that was attached to the University of Missouri in the 19th century.”
MU’s charge to carry knowledge to the public was expanded with the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which established the cooperative extension service. The service was designed to extend knowledge gained at land-grant institutions to citizens across the states, Turner said.
Today, MU operates extension programs in all 114 Missouri counties. In addition to agriculture, program areas include nutrition, home economics, 4-H, child and family development, community development and small business development, said Turner, who formerly served as director of MU extension.
As its land-grant responsibilities evolved, so did other aspects of the university.
The post-World War II demand for access to higher education and the absence of public four-year institutions in St. Louis and Kansas City put pressure on MU to expand its services, Olson wrote. In 1963, the private University of Kansas City was merged into the University of Missouri, and a campus was established in St. Louis.
Those three campuses and the school in Rolla thus became the UM System, which in the fall of 2003 enrolled 62,089 students.
The system employed 7,199 faculty members, 66 percent of them full time and 34 percent part time.