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Michigan State University and WSU are kindred colleges with similar rivals

In 2013, the University of Washington’s president had the audacity to question Washington State University’s ability to start a medical school.

“Good luck. That’s a multimillion-dollar task,” then-UW President Michael Young said, sparking a public spat that may have given WSU all the motivation in the world to start a medical school. “They’d be very low-rated for a long time. It would take a lot of time before they’d be able to attract quality students. I’d be surprised if Washington wanted to use its resources that way.”

And then – again from the Cougar perspective – Young had the audacity to question the intelligence of revered WSU President Elson Floyd, saying that words spoken by Floyd showed him “not understanding how a medical school is run.”

If ever there is another institution of higher education that would understand WSU’s frustration in dealing with a perceived arrogant sibling university, it’s Michigan State.

At most every important turn, Michigan State University has been fought – often in the shadows – by the University of Michigan.

Among the milestones achieved by MSU that were opposed by Michigan:

    Changing its name from Michigan Agricultural College to Michigan State College.

    Changing its name to Michigan State University.

    Joining the Big Ten.

    Getting a medical school.

MSU’s fight song originally was focused on Michigan: “Smash right through that line of blue.” The line didn’t work so well against Purdue or Ohio State, so it later was changed.

By the middle of the 20th century, MSU administrators hated Michigan so much that Welcome Week for freshmen partly became a training camp for Wolverine bashing.

Sharing similar enemies, however, isn’t what really makes MSU and WSU kindred universities. Instead, it’s their status as land-grant institutions.

Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, providing federal land to each state in the union for the creation of agricultural schools.

Michigan State was founded in 1855, and in 1863 it officially became a land-grant school, making it the nation’s first.

WSU was founded as a land-grant school in 1890.

Before the the Morrill Act, most colleges focused mostly on the arts and letters, not so much agriculture and science, said M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities.

Land-grant colleges helped changed that, bringing farmers into the classroom.

“These schools provided access for education and, ultimately, research for engineering, agriculture and science,” said McPherson, who served as MSU’s president from 1993 through 2004. “They also evolved to do more and more outreach and problem-solving in their states.”

Of course, other universities also have adopted many parts of the land-grant philosophy. But land-grant institutions, including MSU and WSU, promote their land-grant missions for most of what they do. (Note that WSU’s medical school is aimed at bringing more doctors to underserved areas.)

There are, of course, big differences between MSU and WSU. MSU has many more students than WSU and is in a larger urban area. East Lansing has about 50,000 people, and it’s only a mile or so from Lansing, the state capital, which is home to 115,000, according to the last Census. Pullman’s population is about 30,000.

McPherson notes another difference.

WSU’s main rival is across the Cascades, making it appear that WSU and UW represent different parts of the state. MSU and the University of Michigan are only an hour’s drive apart on the freeway (you may prefer “expressway,” if you’re from Michigan).

McPherson downplays the MSU-Michigan rivalry, at least off the playing field.

As MSU grew up and gained a reputation of its own, the universities began working better together, McPherson said.

Of course, that is what university administrators always say about their rivals in public, Michael Young notwithstanding.

As a proud MSU political science graduate, however, McPherson isn’t fully above the rivalry.

As MSU president, he created the MSU Tuition Guarantee, a promise not to raise tuition above the rate of inflation as long as the Legislature maintained MSU’s funding at inflation. This was promoted as something a land-grant school should do to promote broad access to state residents.

The guarantee forced the Legislature’s hand, and gave the University of Michigan fits when trying to lobby for its chunk of state money.

Remembering battles with the University of Michigan for funding in the Legislature during an interview last week, McPherson was a bit nostalgic.

“It was fun, wasn’t it?” he said.

Jonathan Brunt, a 1999 graduate of MSU’s journalism school, can be reached at or (509) 459-5442.

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