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University of Minnesota
April 27, 2012
Photos by David Mendolia.
U student carries forward his family’s land-grant legacy
By Bill Magdalene
Nathaniel Prescott Morrill (known as Prescott) is the great grandnephew of Justin Morrill—the Vermont congressman who in 1862 drafted a law that shaped the American educational system.
As Prescott tells the story, “In the 1800s the federal government owned a lot of land across the country. Many states and private entities were figuring out ways to set up universities to do research related to farming and agriculture, as that was a large part of the nation's economy at the time, and many families across the country owned and operated small farms.”
Enter Justin Morrill. “My great granduncle proposed a law that gave a lot of this federally-owned land to individual states to use to set up those universities,” Prescott says. “The law was called the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862. It laid the foundation for the public colleges and universities across the country today.”
From Maine to Minnesota
The Morrill family traces its American roots to the 1640s in Maine. Prescott’s grandfather, John George Morrill Sr., was Justin Morrill’s nephew. In 1972 John George Morrill Jr., Prescott’s father, moved to Minnesota to attend the University of Minnesota.
“Oddly enough, [the story of Justin Morrill] wasn't handed down as family lore and history,” Prescott says. “Rather my dad, a diligent student of history (BA in journalism, U of M), was investigating family history and discovered this link to our past.”
Prescott, 28, grew up in Hopkins, Minnesota, and graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth, majoring in environmental studies and philosophy. He’s now on the University’s Twin Cities campus, working toward a dual master's degree in landscape architecture and urban planning.
“A lot of politicians talk about American innovation as something that sets us apart from many other countries in the world, and I believe them,” Prescott says. “We have a legacy of firsts in this country such as the telephone, mechanical flight, the internet, and the light bulb. However, as the famous UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, ‘Yesterday's awards don't win today's games.’ American Innovation starts with our educational system, which includes our research universities.”
As a student, Prescott values the shared expertise at a research university. “The faculty and staff, like my fellow students, have an amazing mix and depth of experience and are always willing to carve out time to discuss almost anything,” he says.
“A perfect example of this is the collaborative studio environment we work in at the College of Design. While at our desks, it is not uncommon for someone just to shout out a question on any topic, from standard curb dimensions, or questions about a particular operation in a software program, to dense academic theory, calculus, or the performance of different plant species in our climate. Whoever has an answer, related experience, or resources responds, and we all learn just a little bit more.”
From wilderness to cities
Prescott’s research interests parallel the evolution of the land-grant mission of the public research university, where agricultural, environmental, and urban issues become ever more interconnected.
He pursued environmental studies as an undergraduate with no idea of what he wanted to do afterward. “I simply wanted to better understand and advocate for our beautiful wild places,” he says. Exposure to the wilderness eventually led to him to study how to make cities better places to live. “The health of our natural environments are inextricably coupled to the health our human environments.”
The challenge, he says, is to create a much better interface between the places where we all work, play, shop, and live. “As gas becomes more precious and cities are rejuvenated after our brief romance with suburbia, we have to shift the priority away from the automobile and back to people.”