For the planners of The Justin Morrill Symposium, there was uncertainty in the air early in the morning of August 11.   The clouds were still low and the ground wet from the overnight rain, and forecasters promised showers throughout the day.  But there were more fundamental questions: Would people actually come?  Would the parking plan work, or would cars bog down in Ned Coffin’s field?  Would the speakers be interesting?  Voices rang out on the Strafford green as volunteers and board members scrambled with the final preparations.

 

At about eight thirty the cars began to stream into the upper village, where they were stopped and directed the speakers and volunteers to the lot behind the Town House and everyone else to the hayfield (“Really?  Will I scrape bottom going over that curb?”) , where their cars were slotted into a neat row that by nine o’clock stretched nearly to the river.  The morning warmed with the sun just behind the clouds, and thunderstorms seemed a scary possibility; but we were under way with the sesquicentennial celebration of the signing of the Land Grant College Act of 1862.

 

As Vermont State Senator Dick McCormack began his opening remarks as moderator, a few stragglers climbed the hill to the Town House, where a robust audience of educators, senior citizens, and the curious and the committed, settled cheerfully into their seats, benign and hopeful, perhaps for no other reason that it was summer in Vermont.  With the welcoming complete, we heard the first keynote speaker, NPR and PBS Education Correspondent John Merrow, who opened the symposium with an alarming report on an American education that has strayed so far from Justin Morrill’s 1862 vision to democratize education that it was impossible not to feel despair.  The colleges and universities are now incapable of rescuing what had been lost, Merrow argued.  What we need, he concluded, is a good politician; and the audience was left to wonder if in this day and age a new Justin Morrill could ever emerge.

 

Slotted between the five keynote addresses on Saturday and Sunday were break-out sessions, thematically arranged as “agriculture,” “education,” or “history.”  Choosing was difficult, so I resolved to sit in on one of each.  First up for me was Glenn Andres of Middlebury College speaking about the Gothic Revival movement in Vermont and specifically about how Morrill was enamored with the movement and brought it to Strafford when he designed the Morrill Homestead.  For the talk, we had crowded into the Education Center at the Homestead, and for an hour we all felt transported to the 19th Century.

 

At lunch under an enormous tent on the Strafford Common, the first of two meals served by Maple Street Catering – buffet lines, tickets, and small tables lively with conversation – I realized I had stopped worrying about preparations and had metamorphosed into a member of the audience.  Talk swirled around the keynote and the three different break-out sessions, and the weather seemed to be holding steady.

 

After lunch we climbed once more to the Town House to hear University of Maine president Paul Ferguson speak on the mission of a modern land grant university as a research facility and a leader in agriculture and forestry.  He delivered his speech from the main floor of the Town House rather than from the podium on the stage, and although at times his words seemed designed for donors or potential students, he touched down repeatedly on Justin Morrill’s vision.  His enthusiasm and the examples he presented served as a welcome anodyne to the morning’s bleak picture; and when the second keynote was over, the audience knew the important truths lay somewhere in between the tone and message of the two keynote addresses.

 

My break-out session in mid afternoon was on education, led by UVM’s Dr. Fayneese Miller.  Similar to Paul Ferguson’s “can-do” approach in the previous keynote, she argued confidently that it was the responsibility of universities to open their doors to all kinds of students, the traditional and the Newmericans, and to make them ready if they arrived with a preparation gap.  There was no blaming the education system, no pessimism, but an articulation of a starting point and a willingness to work hard to make the university available to everyone, traditional non-traditional students, just as Morrill had envisioned a hundred and fifty years earlier.

 

In late afternoon, people returning from their three break-out sessions learned that Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who was supposed to share the next keynote stage, was sitting in a plane grounded by the weather.  Moderator Dick McCormack assured us before he introduced James Billington of the Library of Congress that Senator Leahy would come as soon as he could, but I don’t think I was alone in believing this was an appearance that would never happen.  Billington had no trouble filling the allotted time with a scholarly address about Justin Morrill’s influence on the architecture and elegance of Washington, D.C. in the late 19th Century, particularly on the capitol building, the National Arboretum, the Washington Monument, and, most significantly, the Library of Congress.  This was about Washington, then and now, but citizens of Strafford couldn’t help thinking of  Morrill’s personal library in the Homestead and our local public library named in his honor.  What he wanted for himself, he wanted for the country.  As the talk wound down, and people asked complicated questions from the floor, the aroma of dinner by Big Fatty’s Barbecue rose from the common below and wafted into the Town House.

 

During the day, occasional showers would break out, never a downpour and never enough to make people run for cover; but we were all grateful for the tent overhead as we sat down to dinner with plates heaped with pulled pork and a variety of salads.  We knew there was one more keynote to go, one more trip up the hill, but people seemed happy lingering at their tables and talking.  Suddenly there was a commotion, cheers first, then applause and a spontaneous standing ovation.  Senator Leahy had come after all and stood under the tent waving to diners and beaming, with his wife Marcelle at his side.  People in Vermont love their senators.

 

There was brief uncertainty, then, whether the evening program would be delayed for the Leahys to sit down for a quick supper, but it turned out they had eaten sandwiches in the car as they drove from the airport.  The migration to the Town House began, and as people took their seats it was clear that some had headed home like baseball fans who leave a ballpark before the game is over, thinking they know the outcome.  They were wrong.  Saturday night was the highlight of the symposium.

 

Senator Leahy began the evening speaking with particular Vermont pride about the legacy of Justin Morrill, calling the Land Grant College Act one of the most important pieces of legislation in our country’s history.  At the end of his short speech, he called the Friends of the Morrill Homestead up to the stage to present a Senate Proclamation (unanimously passed!) honoring the 150th anniversary of the signing of the original act.  When that was done and we were leaving the stage , the senator shared a quick story.  Unanimous votes in the Senate are rare, of course, and even this proclamation raised some eyebrows on the other side of the aisle.   One reluctant senator wondered why he should sign.  “I don’t think we have one in our state,” he said in reference to the land grant colleges.  At this point in the story, Senator Leahy’s expression became a broad smile.  “But you do.  I’ll show you,”  he had said to his colleague and reached into his pocket for a printed list of Land Grant institutions by state.  “Right there,” he had said, and the proclamation was signed unanimously.

 

But it was Dr. Clement Price of Rutgers University who brought special meaning to the symposium that evening with his words on the second Land Grant College Act (1890) that extended support to the negro colleges that had begun to form in the South during the Jim Crow Era.  Price called this signing the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement that would not swing into full scale until more than a half-century later.  In a speech rich with historical detail and scholarly diction, and laced with a cadence and resonance you might expect to hear on Sundays in an African-American church, Price took the audience to a fresh discovery he had made while researching his speech.  “I had not realized,” he confessed, “how important Justin Morrill had been in the history of African Americans,” and he went on to say that his discovery would change the way he structured his African-American History courses at Rutgers.  It was an inspirational moment for everyone in the audience.

 

Saturday night after the lights went out in the Town House and the common was quiet, the rain came in earnest.  By morning, the entire system had blown through, and Sunday greeted us with bright sun and a blue sky.  The program began an hour later than Saturday morning and began with a choice of three break-out sessions to be followed by the final keynote address.

 

My choice was “agriculture” and a program shared by Thomas Vogelmann of UVM’s School of Agriculture and Verna Fowler, President of the College of the Menominee Nation, a tribal college in Wisconsin supported by the third Morrill Act of 1994.  There was an interesting interplay between the two speakers from very different institutions.  Vogelmann spoke about the future of agriculture in North America in the era of climate change, arguing that it was the role of agriculture schools to anticipate the future and prepare for it. “Would you believe cotton in Vermont?” he said with some irony, but then he went on to challenge us to think of the day when sustainable agriculture in Vermont would require irrigation.  In contrast, Fowler spoke of  starting a tribal college to serve the needs of the Menominee Nation, of  curriculum that now includes nursing and sustainable forestry, a program that now draws students from across the country to the Menominee Nation to learn first-hand about the future of woods management.

 

The content of these two presentation was hopeful and poignant in itself, but people who had heard Clement Price the night before couldn’t help seeing a parallel.  Morrill’s original legislation in 1862, which had brought support to the University of Vermont, already a working institution in 1862, and aspired to the democratization of education had embedded in it the seeds for a much greater democratization that would eventually include former slaves and the children of slaves and include Native Americans.  Like the U.S. Constitution, the act contained a vision that would take scores of years to come clear.  Anyone who experienced the full range of the symposium now had a booming affirmative answer to the question, “Is the Morrill Act relevant today?”

 

The crowd had thinned noticeably by Sunday down to the real believers, but those who came were excited.  The weather, the sizzle of the grill of Vermont Crepe and Waffle serving brunch, the feeling that everyone had witnessed something remarkable over the weekend created a special warmth for the final keynote speaker Rolf Diamant, who linked together key legislation signed by Congress during the Civil War that not only created the Land Grant colleges and opened the West to homesteading, but also ceded to California the land that would eventually become Yosemite National Park with the understanding that it would be available to the public.  This last act led to the creation of our national parks.  In a period of less than two years Congress and President Lincoln signed four acts that, in a sense, helped determine the nation we would become.

 

This article has focused on the program, but the real take-away from the symposium was personal.  Each symposium-goer came as an individual with an interest in education and some preconceived ideas, but left with a head buzzing with ideas and new questions.  The symposium attracted some media, and many of the events were filmed by a pair of public TV stations.   Many were amused and puzzled to see sports-writer, columnist, and radio personality Charlie Pierce at many of the events.  What was he up to, we wondered, because he never seemed to be taking notes?  But the following week our questions were answered when he filed an article that now can be found online at: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/morrill-symposium-11778233  He, too, had been moved by the weekend event.

 

Anniversary celebrations happen all the time, and most, like Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, cannot help looking backward nostalgically into a world that has changed.  This was not the case with the Morrill Symposium, partly by design, but mainly because Senator Morrill began something in the 1862 act that would develop in ways he could not have imagined.  For a man interested in agriculture, the proper metaphor would be to say he readied the soil and planted the seeds.  The symposium brought people to Morrill’s home, to the town of Strafford and to his Gothic Revival Homestead, to think about the big issues facing education in the future.  The symposium is over, and the issues remain, and for the Friends of the Morrill Homestead, the job of outreach and sharing the Senator’s vision will continue.