An Education: What It Means
Chancellor Perlman, thank you for that kind introduction. While the accolades for research successes often go to the faculty members, they are a reflection of the dedicated work of his or her students. In my own program as a small grains breeder, not a research plot is cut, not a bag of seed is weighed, not a single lot of seed is cleaned and packaged for replanting that is not touched by one of my graduate students or my student workers. It is I that am in their debt.
I would like to add my welcome to the distinguished guests, graduates, their families (here and afar), and their friends who have come today for this ceremony and celebration. It is a good thing we do today and it is a great pleasure to be here as this is the ceremony that I like the most and the one I try to attend whenever my students complete their degree.
Today I would like to share the Context of a land grant University - the University of Nebraska is a land grant university and your degree is being granted by a land grant university. In 1862, Congressman Justin Smith Morrill submitted a bill entitled "An Act for donating public lands to the several states and territories which may provide colleges for the benefit of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts" (which became known as the Morrill Act). The amount of land was proportionate the number of senators and representatives. The purpose was for, "the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the states may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes on the several pursuits and professions in life." This act was the first federal act in support of higher education.
The Morrill Act was passed and signed into law on July 2, 1862 (two days before our Independence Day). The concept that higher education would be accessible to students was initially developed in Illinois, but it was felt that it would have a better chance of passing if it was introduced by an Eastern state Congressman. The bill was first introduced in 1857 and passed in 1859, but was vetoed by President Buchanan. Morrill resubmitted the bill in 1862 and its passage was helped by many of the states which had opposed the law, left the union in 1861. The new President, President Lincoln signed it. As I said earlier, the bill was signed in 1862. The nation was at war in the bloodiest war we have ever fought. In 1862, the battle of the ironsides (Hampton Roads - beginning of the modern navy of steel clad ships) and the battle of Second Bull Run, were already fought.
Yet to come was the Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg — the bloodiest battle in the history of the U.S. Amongst this carnage when the future this young nation was at risk, our nation and its Congress paused to pass this legislation. Consider how they must have valued education. 1862 was an important year in our history because the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railway (transcontinental railway) Act we passed and the Emancipation Proclamation was given.
A little bit about Justin Smith Morrill. He was born on April 14, 1810, 200 years ago and was a Vermont Congressman at the time. He never attended university, but was awarded honorary degrees. If you want to know the value of something ask a person who does not have it. In my field, we have a saying; "The best sauce for food, is hunger."
Returning to my field, my predecessor, Dr. John Schmidt once told me there would be three things that I would enjoy as a wheat breeder. The first would when you made a cross or hybrid, because that is where all of your creative energy and vision would be required. The second would be when you walked your fields, observed the progeny of this cross, and saw a line that you were sure would become a variety. You will remember the spot in the field, the time of day you saw it, whether or not the sun was shining. The third would be when that variety was grown on 8,000,000 acres (to put this in perspective, 8,000,000 acres is over 10,000 square miles, requires one half a billion pounds of seed to be planted, will produce over 20,000,000,000 lbs of grain and will feed over 100,000,000 Americans their annual consumption of wheat) AND you remember when you held all the seed of that variety in the palm of your hand.
Whatever your future may hold, when you cross this stage and receive your diploma, remember what you hold in the palm of your hand — your memories and your future. Why do I include the future? It is not by chance that this is a Commencement (meaning: a start or a beginning) exercise, rather than a graduation ceremony. The word commencement was chosen with great care and as a faculty member we are proud of your accomplishments. But also remember how special is this day, that on the 200th anniversary of Justin Smith Morrill's birth, in the city named for the president who signed the bill into law, from this great land grant university, we came to celebrate and honor your success.
Congratulations! I am particularly pleased to be here to celebrate this ceremony with one of my students will receive his Ph.D. today. We have come a long way together and I intend to fully savor this moment.