Land-Grant Universities, the Humanities, and Equal Access

I have long straddled the fence between the humanities and the social sciences, one foot in each world, never quite understanding why the fence is there at all. As an English major interested in linguistics and discourse analysis and an international studies scholar interested in politics and current events around the world, I see how these various disciplines overlap and inform one another. I see how taken together, they make my education more complete and they make me a better scholar. Yet, academia remains characterized by disciplinary silos.

While the humanities and the social sciences may not clash as obviously, the humanities, the sciences, and more applied disciplines have long been at odds. Unfortunately, within this tension, the applied disciplines often seem more valuable. As the University of Wyoming searches for places to trim the budget, some programs – like the humanities – may not seem as useful and necessary as others – like career-track, applied programs.

But as a land-grant university, the University of Wyoming has certain responsibilities. Through the Morrill Acts of 1862, 1890, and 1994, state legislatures and Congress set the parameters and missions for land-grant universities. The first Morrill Act provided federal lands to states to establish these public institutions, which were to teach things like agriculture, military tactics, and mechanics to the working class. The act was officially titled “An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories which may Provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts” and was signed into law in 1862 by President Lincoln. This act brought higher education to the working-class public in the form of practical courses. Still, beyond these arguably more practical areas of study, land-grant universities were also to teach classical studies.

The idea of more inclusive higher education did not come about within the legislature. Rather, these institutions were founded through the movements of ordinary, working-class people who pressured their legislatures to create universities for the people. These people demanded an accessible education, and they pushed their legislatures to make it happen. The primary goal of the resulting land-grant institutions was to make a comprehensive and broad, practical higher education accessible to members of the working classes in the United States. As land-grant universities evolved, they became more inclusive to the population, regardless of class, race, and gender.

The University of Wyoming, Wyoming’s land-grant institution, was founded in 1886. The first University of Wyoming President, John Wesley Hoyt, focused the university’s curriculum on the arts and humanities and also implemented courses in agriculture, engineering, and military tactics, as UW’s land-grant status would imply.

Still, while the University of Wyoming’s status as a land-grant university seems to imply its responsibilities towards a practical education, what does that have to do with the humanities?

A commitment to the humanities has been part of the land-grant university mission from the beginning. In addition to the practical training of agriculture, mechanics, and military tactics, land-grant universities were established to bring “classical studies” to the working class. This was part of a comprehensive education. But what could the children of farmers and factory workers do with an education that involved classical studies?

Today the question lingers: What can a comprehensive liberal arts education involving things like literary and philosophical studies do for students from working class families throughout Wyoming?

“For this son of a bus driver and a factory worker, quite a bit,” Dr. Scott Henkel, assistant professor in English and African American and Diaspora Studies at UW, answers. Having been raised by a bus driver/janitor and a mail man, Dr. Henkel’s sentiments resonate with me.

In his public talk on May 8, “The Humanities and the Land Grant University Mission from the 19th to the 21st Century,” Dr. Henkel argued that the humanities are vital to the mission of the land-grant university and therefore to the mission of the University of Wyoming as well. Historically, institutions of higher education excluded working class students and students of color through admissions requirements that essentially used the classics as a tool against them. Noting how the classics, in particular, were long used to exclude working class students, Dr. Henkel suggested the curriculum of land-grant universities ought to include not only the sciences and professional training, but also the humanities. Why should the children of farmers, factory workers, and bus drivers be given a different and lesser education than others?

Jonathan Baldwin Turner, one of the original architects of the land-grant university mission, stated land-grant universities’ curricula ought “to apply existing knowledge directly and efficiently to all practical pursuits and professions in life and to extend the boundaries of our present knowledge in all possible, practical directions.” Despite Turner’s mentioning of the “practical,” he clearly saw land-grant universities as having a responsibility to the expansion of knowledge rather than limiting their curricula to only practical training.

The humanities are central to the land-grant mission as they are an essential part of expanding “the boundaries of our present knowledge.” An education involving the humanities trains students how to think critically; how to use reasoning; how to make an argument; and how to continue asking questions. It sparks curiosity and leads to insight about art, music, poetry, history, politics, and about different cultures and peoples around the world. Within the humanities, we think about and explore the human experience, and we increase our knowledge about the world around us.

Nonetheless, in the real world of today, budget cuts place limitations on how far that knowledge can expand. Dr. Henkel notes: “Cuts to the university have done real damage to the land-grant mission and to public education in general.” UW President Laurie Nichols says as the university looks for places to cut, potential program eliminations will not be based on whether they are humanities, sciences, or career-track programs, but on enrollment figures. But with these potential cuts, will students at this land-grant institution still have equal access to a comprehensive education?

According to Dr. Henkel, “What a land-grant university should provide is an education good enough for the proudest and open to the poorest.” We hope through the continuing budget cuts, the University of Wyoming will continue to provide this.

Denise Muro is a recent graduate of the University of Wyoming with an MA in International Studies and a graduate minor in Gender and Women’s Studies. She also holds a BA in International Affairs and a BA in English from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, where she worked in refugee resettlement at the Global Refugee Center. Her research focuses on contemporary asylum seekers and refugees in Germany and conceptions of and approaches to integration. She will begin her PhD in Global Governance and Human Security at the University of Massachusetts Boston in the fall of 2017. If you would like to be considered or would like more information on contributing, please email us at