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At Michigan State University, “the pioneer land-grant university,” the pioneering spirit lives on, but it sometimes scares people, especially its most ardent supporters.

Some fear that the strongest land-grant feature—its agricultural character—will die out, buried by law schools, business schools, and medical schools doing cancer research.

As evidence, they can point to the departure of the last farmer on the board of trustees after the elections two years ago. Or to the fact that Morrill Hall, by an ironic twist of fate, will be torn down in the anniversary year of the Morrill Act. Or to the narrow survival of the university’s entire Extension Service three years ago when the governor threatened to eliminate it to save $30 million a year; the state then had the highest unemployment and the worse economy in the country.

Dr. Doug Buhler, the weed scientist who is now the interim dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State, agrees it’s a sad coincidence that Morrill Hall will be torn down in the anniversary year. The old brick-over-wood structure was no longer sound and could not be renovated, he said.

But on the cheerier side, a new 90,000-square-foot addition to the Plant and Soil ­Sciences Building opened in April, giving more and better space to the departments of horticulture and plant pathology, and others.

Some also believe the threat to Extension of three years ago resulted in a strengthening, even an expansion, of the land-grant spirit and mission. Under the leadership of Dr. Tom Coon, Extension was restructured and new parts created to serve new clients outside of mainstream agriculture.

“The sense of the land-grant mission is very strong at MSU,” Buhler said. “The discussion and debate is over what it means in 2012. The world has changed, agriculture has changed, the target has changed.”

MSU got its “pioneer” title in 1855, when it was established by state (rather than ­federal) funding, using land sales to raise money and creating the prototype for the land-grant system President Abraham Lincoln signed into law with the Morrill Act in 1862.

“At times, we get so overwhelmed with the events of the day, month, or year that we forget what an impact our predecessors had on educating Michigan’s residents,” Buhler said. “We forget to remember that we’ve come a long way.

“Important as it is to look forward, the anniversary of the Morrill Act gives us a unique opportunity to look back on the huge advances we have made together as a state and nation.”