The Liberal Arts at the Heart of the MSU Land Grant Mission

Written by: Christopher Long

Primary Source:   Christopher P. Long Blog, June 26, 2017

When Ryan Kilcoyne and I met late last year to plan the 2017 MSU College of Arts & Letters Dean’s Report, we wanted to show what we have long talked about: situating the liberal arts endeavor at the center of the 21st-century land grant mission is a powerful catalyst for transformative change in the world.

In fact, a commitment to the liberal arts shaped the university itself at a decisive moment in its history.

In 1859, John M. Gregory, the state superintendent of public instruction, sought to reduce the curriculum of the Michigan Agricultural College (MAC) from its four-year liberal arts course of study to a 2-year program that would focus more narrowly on farm management.

Early advocates of the liberal arts, like Professor Lewis R. Fisk, then serving as president pro tempore of the MAC, argued:

The only way to teach agriculture here, is to teach literature also.

In his book, Michigan Agricultural College: The Evolution of a Land-Grant Philosophy, 1855–1925, Keith Widder calls this period of Michigan State University’s history “A Fork in the Road,” suggesting that “a wrong turn could have meant ruin while another turn led to growth and success.” 1

Students joined with faculty in advocating eloquently and successfully for the four-year liberal arts curriculum back in the early 1860’s. They wanted, as Widder writes, “to be transformed into enlightened citizens, not just better farmers.” 2

Ultimately, this was the path the state legislature approved in the 1861 Act to Reorganize the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, situating the liberal arts endeavor at the heart of the land-grant mission of the Michigan Agricultural College (see, sections 15–16 in particular).

By framing the 2017 MSU College of Art & Letters Dean’s Report around this important moment of decision, we sought to draw on this important history in order to show what the liberal arts has long empowered our faculty, students, and alumni to ACHIEVE:


  1. Widder, Keith R. Michigan Agricultural College: The Evolution of a Land-Grant Philosophy, 1855-1925. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2004, 39.
  2. Ibid., 42.
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Christopher P. Long is dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University. His extensive publications in Ancient Greek and Contemporary Continental Philosophy include three books: The Ethics of Ontology: Rethinking an Aristotelian Legacy (SUNY 2004), Aristotle On the Nature of Truth (Cambridge 2010), and an enhanced digital book entitled, Socratic and Platonic Political Philosophy: Practicing a Politics of Reading (Cambridge 2014). The digital platform of the enhanced digital book enables readers to engage directly with the author in an online community. He is also co-founder of the Public Philosophy Journal, a project that has received over $780,000 of funding from the Mellon Foundation to create an innovative online space of digital scholarship and communication. To learn more about his administrative approach and his recent research in Philosophy, digital scholarly communication, and the educational use of social media technologies, visit his blog: He is the host of the Digital Dialogue podcast ( and can be reached on Twitter @cplong and @deancplong.

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