Some History

One of the things I still get a kick out of here, even after nearly three years, is driving past the town signs (every little bit of land in Massachusetts is part of some sort of town or city, jurisdictionally speaking, and the signs let you know when you’re passing from one jurisdiction to another) and seeing the founding dates – 1759, 1661, 1677, 1718. When some of these towns were settled, Europeans barely knew New Zealand existed – and Maori had only come to Aotearoa three or four centuries before that. It’s a whole different scale of history.

The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, on the other hand, is on quite a comprehensible scale. This week they’re breaking out the party hats (for which read: embarking on a very insistent course of asking for donations, because in the fine print of the enrollment forms for US universities is an agreement to be harassed for money for the rest of your life) to celebrate the university’s 150th anniversary. This makes UMass only a decade older than the University of Canterbury – although UC caught up quickly by graduating its first female student only two years after its first male students graduated, while UMass took another twelve years to admit women at all.

Celebratory banners on the Fine Arts Center (itself a fine display of UMass's devotion to the Cold War Soviet school of architecture.)

Celebratory banners on the Fine Arts Center (itself a fine display of UMass’s devotion to the Cold War Soviet school of architecture.)


Sort of made up for by some spring foliage. (To be fair, they’re also planting a whole lot of trees to celebrate the anniversary, it’s not *just* about fundraising.)

Let’s face it: it’s not easy being the flagship state university in a state which has more world-renowned private universities than you can shake a stick at. Not that UMass was always a university. It was founded in response to the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862, which sought to fund and encourage the foundation of agricultural and military colleges. 1862 was, of course, during the American Civil War, which helped get the Act passed by removing many of the states whose senators opposed it from the Senate. (The current political climate in the US almost makes that state of affairs seem tempting.)

The then-named Massachusetts Agricultural College was officially founded in 1863, but didn’t actually get any students or start classes until 1867, which makes 2013 sort of dubious as an anniversary in my opinion. (Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull may have thought the best school was one without any students, and fighting your way through crowds of undergraduates can lean one towards this opinion, but they are sort of necessary for the definition of “school”.) It got upgraded to being “Massachusetts State University” in 1931, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1947. (There are other campuses – Boston, Lowell, Dartmouth, and Worcester – but people tend to forget about them unless they actually go there. This led to rather a lot of panicked corrections on the part of UMass Amherst two weeks ago when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was reported to be a student at “UMass”. He was, but at the Dartmouth campus near Boston, not Amherst. The distinction is not usually quite so important.)

As part of rapid post-WWII expansion in the 1950s, a new science building was constructed and named after the Vermont senator who had sponsored the original Land-Grant Colleges Act. Most universities and colleges founded with the money from that act have a Morrill building somewhere on campus; ours still houses the Microbiology department, although half the department is moving this summer into the very newest science building on campus, which has untold luxuries like windows and break rooms and a floor plan that conforms to human logic.

Any map which has to be captioned "Don't Panic" is a map depicting something that went wrong somewhere.

Does not conform to human logic.

On the other hand, we still have the nuclear fallout shelter.

Slightly less comforting than all the "VERMONT YANKEE EVACUATION ZONE" signs you find if you drive a little way north (Vermont Yankee being the nearest nuclear power plant.)

Slightly less comforting than all the “VERMONT YANKEE EVACUATION ZONE” signs you find if you drive a little way north (Vermont Yankee being the nearest nuclear power plant.)

So if nuclear war ever does break out, those of us who are staying in Morrill – and missing out on the windows and break rooms and so on – will be much closer to safety.


North Korean saber-rattling aside, I’d rather have the windows. (I know this is an artist’s sketch, but it really does look just like this.)

Then again – there’s the map. We’ll have to find the fallout shelter first.

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One Response to Some History

  1. Phil Stewart says:

    I quite like the look of the new building!

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