During any normal day in Happy Valley, you might notice photos of the country’s 16th president scattered around campus. Pictures of Abraham Lincoln are on display prominently within Old Main’s fresco gallery, and you can even spot one in Innovation Park. So what’s the deal with this pattern?
Many Penn Staters know the university is a land-grant institution, but you may not know much about how it actually got there. As it turns out, Lincoln played a key role in establishing Penn State as an agricultural university when he signed the Morrill Act into law in 1862.
The act helped propel the university into a reputable land-grant institution, and key terms of the law established as follows: “The leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.”
Penn State’s first president Evan Pugh stood behind the passage of this law. The Farmer’s High School of Pennsylvania changed its name to the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania soon before passage of the act became official. In 1863, Penn State became Pennsylvania’s only land grant institution — a designation the university has held since.
Because of the Morrill Act, the university was able to educate students successfully on subjects that directly pertained to the industrial jobs of the time — the United States was in the midst of one of the most rapid growth rates in history. The university championed the teaching of relevant emerging topics like liberal arts and various types of engineering. The passage of the act brought hope to Penn State as what was once a newly-developing school morphed into a nationally-recognized university.
For this reason, muralist Henry Varnum Poor decided to create a representation of Lincoln in a way that anyone who entered Old Main could see. Lincoln currently holds a spot in the front of the fresco gallery inside the building. The painting depicts Old Main in its original state and Lincoln standing beside a young boy.
To this day, the university has guided students and faculty by the very same principles the Morrill Act originally instilled: to foster connections, promote research, and inspire growth in all aspects of academia.