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Robert Lee on "Land-Grab" Universities

Recall This Book is a Brandeis-based podcast that assembles scholars and writers from different disciplines to make sense of contemporary issues, problems, and events. This episode is about the Land-Grab Universities project, which explores the relationship of US universities to the expropriation of Native American lands that characterized settler colonialism’s creep across the continent. That collaborative project has two main creators: Tristan Ahtone and Dr. Robert Lee, assistant professor of history at Cambridge University. Recall This Book’s hosts for this episode are John Plotz and Jerome Tharaud.

John Plotz (JP): Your work focuses on Indigenous dispossession and US state formation in the 19th-century American West. You have a cluster of articles and a database, accessible under the title “Land-Grab Universities.” So, Bobby, can we just start by asking you about that project?

Robert Lee (RL): Land-Grab Universities is a collaborative, multimedia project about the history of land expropriation for the benefit of land-grant universities in the United States under the Morrill Act of 1862.

JP: I always associate the land-grant university with, say, the University of Nebraska being given some land to build a campus. But the land grants you’re talking about do not operate that way.

RL: Yes, for the most part it’s not about the land underneath campuses. It’s land at a distance, that can be sold or managed to raise funds for endowments. Sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles away from the universities that benefit.

Land expropriated through various treaties and surveys became the parcels that you see when you look out the window when you’re flying in a plane across the United States. Universities in western states sometimes selected parcels upon which to build their campuses: The University of Nevada, Reno, for example, is built on land apportioned by the Morrill Act.

JP: How did the selections work? Was it like draft day in the NFL?

RL: A draft isn’t really the right image. Morrill Act land selections were decentralized. Most states in the East were given acres in the West via selection coupons called scrip, which allowed states to select 160-acre parcels from the surveyed public domain. But they didn’t have to make the selections themselves. They could sell the right to enter the scrip. So, what most of the universities in the East did was sell the scrip in bulk to speculators, because they didn’t want to deal with the administrative costs of actually going through the whole selection process.

In contrast, western states had to choose land within their boundaries. The University of California basically ran a real estate office out of the university for decades, acting like any other land speculators would in the 19th and in the early 20th centuries by looking for the best parcels that they could acquire to then resell.

And then you have another phenomenon where universities wind up not selling this land. This happened a lot in mountain states in the West and later territories that became states long after the initial passage of the Morrill Act.

The selection process couldn’t be like NFL draft day because this was an evolving program; as new states were created, they were grandfathered in and became beneficiaries of the Morrill Act.

Read entire article at Public Books