Penn State’s Original Crime — It Stole Land from Native Americans

New, shocking evidence reveals that PSU is a “land-grab university”

Shane J. Ralston
Apr 10, 2020 · 4 min read

Penn State University’s laundry list of ethical crimes is overwhelming to the faint of heart. Covering up the activities of a serial pedophile for 30 years. Permitting the hazing and killing of frat members and football players. Suing employees who complain of gender discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment.

The most recent revelation is that Penn State is one among many American universities that benefited from the 1862 Morrill Act, which the U.S. government used to expropriate land from indigenous peoples to use for educational purposes.

The Morrill Act of 1862 was widely heralded as a way to enhance the land holdings of agricultural colleges and universities, but the land was stolen from Native Americans.

Robert Lee, an American history lecturer at Cambridge University, has conducted a with colleagues, published in High Country News. In the report, Lee and his collaborators claim that it would be more accurate to refer to so-called “land-grant” institutions like Penn State as “land-grab” institutions.

In , titled “Why New Research Calls Some Flagships ‘Land-Grab Universities’,” Lee tells how the truth has been intentionally buried for years:

The Morrill Act is often taught at ed schools. It might come up, briefly, in courses on U.S. history. But generally, until the last five years or so, the historiography didn’t lend itself toward teaching this issue. The core issue in the deep historiography of the Morrill Act has to do with the extent to which it lived up to its democratic promise. Questions about the sourcing of these funds just were not a question in the literature. If you wanted to teach about the Morrill Act, you couldn’t go to the library and find out about this information. But this has been changing in the past few years. Part of the hope is that this project pushes in that direction.

So, what should guilty universities like Penn State do? They can start by acknowledging their crime. Lee explains:

Land acknowledgments have emerged and spread across the globe in the last 10 years or so, and they focus on acknowledging the land that the universities stand on. In the last few years, there’s also been criticism of land acknowledgments as more of a ritual than a call to action. Michigan State recognizes in their extended land acknowledgment that they are a land-grant school, that they received lands through the Morrill Act. Most do not. The first step, in my view, is acknowledging this history, coming to terms with this history, and incorporating it into land acknowledgments. But I don’t think it should stop there.

The way that we’ve designed this project is hopefully very useful for teaching. The digital component, the article, the methodology, the bibliography that we’ve included — these are all geared toward helping folks teach this issue. I think it will be valuable to land-grant universities. We have sort of provided a bird’s-eye view of the problem, and they have the documents that they could look at with students or other groups on campus to flesh out the full history of their connection to, and the use of, indigenous lands for funding their operations from the 19th century forward.

Pennsylvania prides itself on having two systems of higher education — one entirely public (PASSHE) and the other based on a hybrid public-private model (the Commonwealth) commonly referred to as“state-related.” So, it is not even clear that Penn State is a state institution.

The question is apropos since many citizen requests under Pennsylvania's Open Records Law are declined, but one of the worst abusers is Penn State University, which often thwarts efforts to make it more transparent, even while it (sometimes) calls itself a “state institution.”

Unlike the PASSHE institutions, Penn State in its capacity as a state-related institution is . Rather than welcoming greater transparency, the university’s leadership has instead maintained a veil of secrecy, hiding the exorbitant salaries of executive administrators, the extent to which they covered up Jerry Sandusky’s sex crimes and now, we discover, the disturbing origins of the land the university sits on.When Penn State wants more funding from the state, it calls itself a “state institution,” but when it wishes to have more independence from state guidelines or to be exempt from the Open Records Law it calls itself “state-related.” Now it has another adjective: “land-grabbing.” All signal the extent of unethical behavior and corruption that has taken root at Penn State, right from the beginning.

Besides acknowledging their first crime — stealing land from indigenous people — Penn State might also consider giving some or all of the land back to native groups. Or offering generous scholarships to Native Americans. However, given Penn State’s lack of transparency and keen ability to hide its ethical crimes, this is unlikely to occur at any time in the near future.

Shane Ralston, Ph.D., is a teaching fellow and the Assistant Dean at Wright College, Woolf University

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Shane J. Ralston

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