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Saturday, June 15, 2024
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Letter to the Editor: Palestine protests fought uphill at land-grant universities

Editor’s note: Letters to the Editor and open letters reflect the opinions, concerns and views of University of Wisconsin-Madison students and community. As such, the information presented may or may not be accurate. Letters to the Editor and open lette

Editor’s note: Letters to the Editor and open letters reflect the opinions, concerns and views of University of Wisconsin-Madison students and community. As such, the information presented may or may not be accurate. Letters to the Editor and open letters do not reflect the editorial views or opinions of The Daily Cardinal.  

I support the efforts of Students for Justice in Palestine to wash some blood off the hands of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with regard to the genocide in Palestine. I also notice a stark absence of a key piece of context as I listen to the public discourse around the topic. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is a land-grant institution. We hear this all the time, but what does it really mean? I want to praise an article from earlier this semester, UW System receives over $1 million annually from investments on stolen Native land. The land-grant university system was primarily designed by Justin Smith Morrill, a Congressman from Vermont.

I was a student here at UW over ten years ago, and I returned to UW as an academic refugee from a doctoral program in educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Vermont. You may recognize that degree program because it is the same one where our Dean of Students earned her doctorate. I am both American Indian and Ashkenazi Jewish, plus a few other things. I was hoping that UW would be the same school that I knew before — a more welcoming place for Indigenous students.

As a transplanted Vermonter, I can tell you about Justin Smith Morrill. Many settler Vermonters are quite fond of him, and he is widely celebrated there. The Morrill Act of 1862 took federally owned lands in the West and gave each State scrips, or vouchers, to claim those lands in the West to create an endowment for a land-grant university in their State. Many eastern States took lands thousands of miles away, but western States often got land in their own States, as Wisconsin did. States used these land parcels to generate money that went into an endowment to fund the universities. In exchange, the land-grant universities had to train students in three areas: (1) agriculture, (2) mechanical arts, and (3) military tactics. You see, the universities now owned these lands, but there was a problem: Indians were still living on those lands. The universities had to train soldiers to kill the Indians, farmers to take over the land and put it to what Whites considered good use, and machinists to make the weapons and agricultural equipment. Once the lands were transferred from the federal government to private entities, the federal government could not be asked to return it to the people from whom it was stolen. Land-grant universities were designed as a mechanism of settler colonialism. Even if they existed before the land-grant endowment, their function was changed by the money. Those endowments carried universities through economic hard times.

This year, when students at land-grant universities protested ethnic cleansing, genocide, and settler colonialism in Palestine, they often demanded that their universities divest from this genocide, ethnic cleansing, and settler colonialism. This means that they were demanding that their universities disconnect themselves from the very thing that they were set up to do. Getting money through genocide, ethnic cleansing, and settler colonialism is fundamentally what we do—how could we ever stop doing that?

To add insult to injury, Justin Smith Morrill is uplifted as a hero for racial justice because he created a second land-grant program in 1890 to create Historically Black Colleges and Universities. This was notably the same exact year as the Indian Wars ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre. Freedmen became Buffalo Soldiers and played an important role in genocide. Since killing Indians was such dangerous work, many of the White leaders of the time preferred to send Black men to carry out the task when possible. Morrill, like Abraham Lincoln, believed in the abolition of slavery but not racial equality. Justin Smith Morrill was not a hero for racial justice.

I applaud the work of Students for Justice in Palestine and their unaffiliated supporters. I hope that the energy in these groups can keep moving against genocide here at UW. Maybe they’ll focus on disconnecting from the genocidal history of Camp Randall. Maybe they’ll decide to help protect the Indigenous Student Center from looming demolition.

Early in high school, the guidance counselors gathered us in the school library and gave us a presentation about going to college. In that presentation, they told us that many colleges would try to present themselves as welcoming to students from oppressed groups, but some of them would not really mean it. As an example, they showed us an admissions brochure from a school in the Midwest, where one Black student was Photoshopped into a picture full of White students, possibly because the school wanted to market diversity but actually had no pictures of Black and White students together. That school was the University of Wisconsin-Madison. How far have we come?

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