Land grant legacy
UF and PHHP celebrate 150 years of accessible higher education and service to rural communities
By Jill Pease
On July 2, 1862 Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act, which created the land grant university system and opened wide the doors of higher education for many Americans.
Under the Morrill Act, states received 30,000 acres of federal land for each member of their congressional delegation. Profits from the sale of those lands were to be used to establish universities that would educate Americans from all walks of life, not just the wealthy, and offer educational programs that would impact people in their daily lives, such as agriculture and engineering. Later legislation provided land grant status to historically black colleges and universities in 1890, and Native American tribal colleges in 1994.
Today, the University of Florida and the other 106 institutions in the land grant system are credited with making higher education accessible to many people who would not have otherwise received an education, and for important developments in agriculture and food production. The land grant mission has been essential to job creation, economic development, food safety, human health and nutrition, water quality, and natural resource conservation.
At the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions, faculty, staff and students continue to serve communities in the spirit of the Morrill Act’s goal of improving the lives of Americans. And just as the Morrill Act placed emphasis on agricultural workers, the college leads several projects to improve health and access to care among residents of rural areas.
Rural residents experience many more health disparities than their urban counterparts, including higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, suicide, and youth alcohol and tobacco use. A 2012 study by PHHP Dean Michael G. Perri and colleagues at the University of Kansas Medical Center found that 40 percent of rural residents are obese, compared with 33 percent of urban dwellers. Access to care is a significant issue too. There are more than twice as many designated health professional shortage areas in rural areas than in urban settings.
Perri has led several weight management studies for rural adults that use cognitive-behavioral strategies to help participants modify eating and exercise habits. Researchers have adapted the content of materials to address areas of concern expressed by rural participants, such as cooking demonstrations of low-fat, low-calorie versions of traditional Southern dishes and coping strategies for a lack of social support. Both Perri and David Janicke, Ph.D., an associate professor of clinical and health psychology who conducts weight management studies for rural children and parents, have tapped the expertise of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service to help deliver weight management programs to rural residents.
“The Cooperative Extension Service network offers a unique setting in that it provides the infrastructure and stature within rural communities to support preventive services for families,” Janicke said.
The college’s Rural South Public Health Training Center is developing public health workforce education programs and community health projects for rural Florida residents. In partnership with Florida A&M University, the center provides free, online competency-based training for rural public health workers.
“The center is working to identify the needs of the workforce and residents in medically underserved areas and tailor training and services based on those needs, with a special emphasis on HIV/AIDS,” said project director Mary Peoples-Sheps, Dr.P.H., PHHP senior associate dean for public health.
The Rural South Public Health Training Center also offers internships for master’s in public health students who work with state and community partners to assess rural residents’ health needs and conduct community-based projects.
At the National Rural Behavioral Health Center, PHHP faculty members and students focus on three components of rural behavioral health: innovative models of behavioral health service delivery, violence prevention, and disaster and trauma recovery.
Director Brenda Wiens, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor in the department of clinical and health psychology, has collaborated with the Columbia County School District on several projects, including programs aimed at reducing youth violence and a program that links students and families with mental health services, some of which are provided by graduate student trainees. Center members are also working with faculty and students in the UF College of Nursing on a community-based participatory research project targeting social isolation experienced by Latinos who are immigrants living in rural areas.
To help communities prepare for and respond to disasters, the center’s faculty members have created the curriculum “Triumph Over Tragedy: A Community Response to Managing Post-Disaster Stress” for Cooperative Extension agents, community leaders, first responders and health professionals.
One-hundred-and-fifty years after the Morrill’s Act passage, it seems safe to assume that Vermont Sen. Justin Morrill, the chief sponsor of the 1862 and 1890 land grant legislation, would be pleased with its impact on higher education, agriculture and rural communities. As a young man Morrill longed to go to college, but his family couldn’t afford tuition and he had to end his studies at 15.
In a speech first introducing the land grant bill in 1858, Morrill urged his fellow congressmen, “Let us have such colleges as may rightfully claim the authority of teachers to announce facts and fixed laws, and to scatter broadcast that knowledge, which will prove useful in building up a great nation — great in its resources of wealth and power, but greatest of all in the aggregate of its intelligence and virtue.”