Celebrating 150 Years

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On August 5, 2020

From hardscrabble, “country academy” roots, how we became a global research university

Rolla in 1871 was a rough-hewn, hardscrabble town. It had more taverns than churches, no paved streets, and seemingly “as many dogs, hogs, horses, ducks and geese as humans walking the dusty streets,” writes Larry Gragg, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor emeritus of history and political science.

The town of 1,400 had been a line of defense for the Union Army during the Civil War, which had ended six years earlier. The ravaged nation was still recovering from that conflict. 

The Rolla of 1871 seemed an unlikely setting for what would become a major research university by the 21st century. Yet it was here, on the site of Fort Dette, the former Union outpost, that the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy (MSM) took root. 

The early years were difficult. Derided by one college president as a “country academy,” MSM was poorly funded, struggling to enroll students, and even opposed at times by the very board that governed it. One early leader of MSM described it as “a forlorn foundling … despised by the mother institution,” the University of Missouri based 90 miles to the north, in Columbia. 

Nevertheless, MSM persisted.

From these ignoble roots, the university we now know as Missouri S&T became a launchpad for world-changing innovations

“S&T has been able to endure because every generation of faculty and administrators has embraced the land-grant mission of providing access to higher education for qualified Missourians. Whatever challenges faced them, faculty members and campus leaders understood the significance of striving to achieve that compelling mission.”

Its graduates have led major enterprises, including GM, FedEx, Sprint and Bell Labs. Its alumni have advanced NASA and NASCAR, established global humanitarian efforts, and founded countless small businesses. Alumni are known the world over for their problem-solving and can-do spirit. Employers take pride in hiring a “Rolla grad” from MSM, UMR or S&T.

How has this university persevered — even thrived — through all these years? According to Gragg, whose new history book Forged In Gold chronicles the campus’s first 150 years, “S&T has been able to endure because every generation of faculty and administrators has embraced the land-grant mission of providing access to higher education for qualified Missourians. Whatever challenges faced them, faculty members and campus leaders understood the significance of striving to achieve that compelling mission.”

Nuran Ercal, the Richard K. Vitek/Foundation for Chemical Research Endowed Chair in Biochemistry, works with lab student Kaysi Lee in 2019.

In many ways, the history of S&T parallels that of other land-grant institutions. As Stanford University’s David F. Labaree explains in his 2017 book A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education, by the time of MSM’s founding, the “remarkably humble” U.S. college system was emerging as a rag-tag collection of “lean, adaptable, autonomous … and radically decentralized” institutions. MSM fit right in.

Land-grant universities like S&T offer “a practical education in vocationally useful skills that will prepare students to be adept practitioners in professional roles,” Labaree writes. S&T has taken that pragmatic approach to heart. That’s why many graduates have found success in business and in major national initiatives — notably NASA’s Apollo space program in the 1960s. 

There’s also a “do-it-yourself” ethos that runs through the institution and its students. One of our earliest graduates — L.R. Grabill, class of 1878 — described this attitude well when he wrote that our students “work not only with their heads, but with their hands.” They get stuff done.

In Grabill’s day, that approach was essential to a nation recovering from the Civil War and expanding its industrial capacity. In the years since, students and graduates have responded to other national and worldwide needs, from world wars to the space race to the global need for clean water. 

[Our students] work not only with their heads, but with their hands.”

As Gragg points out, MSM in the 1870s was one of only a handful of schools nationwide that offered mining engineering instruction, “so there were few models” for MSM’s first director, Charles P. Williams, to go by as he developed the curriculum for the new institution.

But Williams had this charge from University of Missouri President Daniel Read: To make MSM “a school both of science and of its applications: its purpose is to teach knowledge and art — first to know and then to do, and to do in the best manner.”

That was enough. And since those hardscrabble early days, students and alumni of MSM, UMR and S&T have forged ahead, armed with their Rolla education, to know and to do, all in the best manner. As this university endures all current and future difficulties, its alumni will continue to do so well into the future.

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On August 5, 2020. Posted in 2020, Features, Summer 2020

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