By STEVEN NALLEY
When Alan Marcus decided to bring together historians from several land-grant universities at Mississippi State University to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Land Grant Act that created them, he wanted them to do more than celebrate.
“We certainly think well of what a lot of land grant colleges did, but land grant colleges are not perfect,” Marcus said. “We want to take a look at what was good, what was not good, and try to make an assessment of the actual totality (of land grant universities’ histories) in its various guises and its various activities.”
So Marcus, a history professor at MSU, decided not to call the event a celebration. He calls it a “Cerebration” — a time to think.
“Thinking Land Grants: A ‘Cerebration’ of the 150th Anniversary of the Morrill Land-Grant Act” began at MSU Wednesday and will continue through Saturday, letting specialists from across the nation evaluate the act’s legacy and chart the future courses of the universities the act created.
Marcus said the program is just the beginning of an extensive process.
The papers presented at the “Cerebration” will be used as data to construct more detailed papers, which Marcus will in turn use for a graduate seminar in history to organize the data into a more meaningful assessment.
“Beyond that, we’re going to publish several volumes of the papers we get with appropriate discursive and expository materials,” Marcus said. “This is going to be a real, physical, permanent monument to this conference. (People will be able) to pick this up and learn what we learned here.”
One of several keynote speakers at the event was Carolyn Brooks, executive director of the Association of Research Directors of 1890 Land Grant Universities. Brooks said her presentation centered on a technique universities use to seek higher rankings in U.S. News and World Report’s standings.
“To do that, you’ve got to be more selective in the students that you admit,” Brooks said. “The main thing that is troubling to me is that land-grant institutions were supposed to be for the common man. So what happens to the common man if he’s coming from school districts that are poorly performing? They could be great students once they get to college, but you’re ignoring them.
“They’re giving scholarships to people that have high incomes, (and) we’re finding that (when) low-income students ... go to institutions, they’re not being able to graduate because of the financial pressures or the psychological pressures,” Brooks said. “I think that as land-grant institutions, we need to have more influence on the ranking system and say that it is worth ranking (a university) high if (it) can take diamonds in the rough in terms of academics and graduate them.”
Jerry Gilbert, MSU provost, said the event has illuminated the impact land grant universities have had on society and the ways those universities have changed over the years.
“Many people outside Mississippi do not realize the value and the quality we have at MSU,” he said, “so it’s really a tremendous benefit to our reputation ... to have people come to our university to interact.”
Gilbert said. “They’ve also learned the local culture. They’ve had a great experience in Starkville and on the campus. They’ve commented on how they love the food every time they come to Mississippi.”
The “Cerebration” features a tour of the Mississippi Delta Friday, with stops at Bowen Flowers Farm, Mattson Gin, Hopson Plantation Commissary, and a blues show at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero. Marcus said the reason he made a point of showcasing Mississippi when organizing the program was the way his colleagues in other parts of the country reacted when he came to MSU.
“I’m a Northerner; I’ve been a Northerner all my life,” Marcus said. “I grew up in New Jersey and spent 25 years in Iowa, but when I decided to come here in 2005, I couldn’t find anyone who didn’t think I was insane for coming to Mississippi. By doing this (tour) and showing (our guests) various experiences... I hope they can come back to their universities and their colleges with a fuller, more appropriate understanding of Mississippi ... what it has become now versus what it was 50, 60 or 80 years ago.”