The University of Massachusetts, like most of the great public universities of our country, is celebrating a major milestone: It was 150 years ago that President Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant Act into law, creating the system that made higher education available to millions of Americans, and which led to the founding of UMass the following year.
The goal of Congressman Justin Morrill’s bill was to create a national system of public colleges that would transform individual lives and also make our communities, our states and our nation smarter and more competitive. The bill was about innovation, accessibility, impact and change.
All of that – the noble goal of the bill, the hopes its supporters must have harbored – came back to me last month as I traveled the state on a four-day, 500-mile bus tour to see exactly what that landmark bill had accomplished in a century-and-a-half.
It is no stretch at all to say that what Congressman Morrill started led directly to the work and commitment I saw in Gloucester’s beautiful Hodgkins Cove at the UMass Marine Station.
The goal of the marine station is exactly in sync with the goals set out by Morrill 150 years ago: Through public investment in higher education, individual students and the state as a whole benefit from thoughtful research and targeted innovation that, in the final analysis, mean more and better jobs, healthier citizens and a stronger society.
No industry is as tied to the heart, soul and economic origins of the Commonwealth as is fishing. Increasingly, no industry is facing such deep, troubling stresses and challenges.
The mission of the marine station, in studies on everything from the migratory pattern of the bluefin tuna to the reproductive habits of lobsters, has an enormous impact on how we will preserve and protect fish and fishing to keep this industry, and this vital source of food, intact and thriving for all of us.
With the support of Sen. Bruce Tarr and Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, the Research Center is poised to participate in research using sonar to help scientists and fishermen develop more reliable information about fish stocks and determine how fish and fishing can best co-exist.
As Molly Lutcavage, director of the marine station said, UMass is redefining what it means to work with the fishing industry to achieve advances that have positive economic and social implications — a feat that complements the university’s land-grant history and tradition.
UMass is not simply involved in marine science here in Gloucester. My trip also took me to New Bedford, to the School for Marine Science and Technology at UMass Dartmouth, and there I heard the same concerns for the future of the fishing industry that I heard in Hodgkins Cove – and witnessed the same commitment by UMass scientists to find answers.
These aren’t local concerns particular to this state’s two great fishing ports, New Bedford and Gloucester. They are national concerns that recently led President Obama to declare the industry here a disaster.
With a possible infusion of millions in disaster aid to New England to help fishing families and to enable us to better understand and mitigate what is happening in our fishery, I am proud that UMass – in Dartmouth and in Gloucester – is at the forefront of finding solutions. Clearly, given the importance of the fishing industry and the alarming rate of fish stock decline, there needs to be more funding to push this important research and work, and UMass is prepared to help put a shoulder to the wheel to be sure those funds are directed where they need to go.
What I saw at the marine station in Gloucester and at UMass Dartmouth’s School of Marine Science and Technology bore out a Vermont congressman’s hopes for a public education system dedicated to higher education that furthered both the individual and the public good.
Robert L. Caret is president of the University of Massachusetts.