Homogenized milk. Over 240 varieties of grains, fruits and vegetables. The most prescribed anti-cancer drugs in the U.S., Cisplatin and Carboplatin. What do these things have in common? All of these products are the agricultural invention of Michigan State University.
With more than just graduates emerging from the university, MSU has come a long way since it first opened.
In 1849, talk circulated around Michigan about starting a school to educate the children of farmers and laborers in the arts of agriculture. After six years of deliberation, Gov. Kinsley S. Bingham finally signed a bill to create an agricultural college. Thus, MSU, then known as the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, became the first land grant college. It would become the “mother” of the 74 land grant universities created in the United States through the Morrill Act, which was inspired by the creation and concept of MSU.[pres]
When MSU first opened its doors in 1857, the mere 81 students actually received free tuition. Only eight faculty members were employed at the college, which provided 16 courses of study with an annual budget of $20,000. Even though the emphasis was on agriculture, other liberal arts coursework was required as well. According to The Spirit of Michigan State, a comprehensive history of MSU, it was believed that students could solve common agricultural problems with a science education, but a liberal arts education was also necessary for students to become effective and articulate citizens.
The nation’s economic depression began to hit the college in 1895 and a crisis of faculty loss and public complaint ensued. A special committee was formed in the same year to examine problems within the college. The committee discovered that attendance was low because interest in agricultural education was not growing. Farmers were pushing their children into other professions in response to the depression’s negative affect on farming life. More and more people were moving to cities and interest in mechanics and engineering increased.
As a result of the committee’s findings, program options expanded, a women’s curriculum was developed and advertising for the college increased. Between 1901 and 1911, the college expanded to 30 departments, instead of the original four to six. These departments included one of the nation’s first forestry programs and schools of hotel administration, veterinary science, education, business administration and police administration. In 1909, Michigan Agricultural College (MAC) became the official name of the institution. 1911 was the first year that more than 100 students graduated.
MAC was on the map as a regional college in the state of Michigan and competing with the state’s other academic institutions for attendance. The end of World War II spurred Michigan State (which had become the Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science in 1925) into a major institute of higher education. The returning war veterans were entitled to a college scholarship from the government via the GI Bill. Many chose to take advantage of the educational opportunity. Enrollment soared to two and a half times what it had been the previous year and 1946 saw 13,282 students attend MSC.
Academic programs and buildings grew to accommodate the swelling number of students. MSC, which officially became Michigan State University in 1955, became a prominent academic institution. In 1969, 40,000 plus people enrolled for the first time, an attendance trend that has continued since then in all but one year.
Now, MSU students are offered 278 different majors in 15 colleges. We have grown from a small agricultural college to an internationally respected university. According to The Spirit of Michigan State, one of every 131 college graduates in the U.S. graduated from MSU.
Our agricultural roots are still evident, especially through MSU’s contributions to the nation’s agricultural development throughout the years. MSU is responsible for developing the first hybrid corn, creating the Michigan sugar beet industry, making Michigan the top producer of blueberries and increasing wheat production by 50 percent with the introduction of two new varieties. MSU research has also yielded the invention of homogenized milk, and many disease eradication and crop protection methods, like the 2 4-d herbicide that kills weeds but not grass.
J. Bruce McCristal, the author of The Spirit of Michigan State, said that MSU was key in democratizing higher education because it opened its doors to everyone. MSU was the first college in Michigan to admit women in 1870, and the first major university in the country to elect an African-American president. Despite its major growth and expansion, McCristal said that MSU is still known for its outreach and research principles highlighted at the founding of the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan in 1855.
“Every man who acquires the information attainable in a college like ours should become a perpetual teacher and example in his vicinity,” Joseph Willams, the first president of the college once said. Williams also said that “the institution should be good enough for the proudest, and cheap enough for the poorest.” And so MSU today shares its research and findings to help the rest of the world, and attempts to make higher education available to as many as possible.
McCristal, a 1954 graduate, has his own ideas about why MSU has thrived for 150 years. “I would say it is the culture of acceptance and friendship on this campus by faculty, students and staff. We are an elite institution that is non-elitist,” he said. “It’s our people that make it great.”

*factual information obtained from McCristal’s The Spirit of Michigan State

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