The Pulitzer Center-supported project Land-Grab Universities has won a 2020 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award (IRE Award) in Division IV of the Print/Online Media category. For their reporting, Texas Observer Editor-in-Chief Tristan Ahtone and University of Cambridge historian Robert Lee conducted a two-year investigation into how American universities profited from the sale of land seized from Indigenous nations.
In 1862, the Morrill Act distributed public domain lands to raise funds for fledgling colleges across the nation. Ahtone and Lee reported that these lands were taken from nearly 250 Indigenous nations and 52 institutions profited from the transfers. According to their reporting for High Country News, they found 99% of the 11 million acres of land that were taken through the Morrill Act.
Since “Land-Grab Universities” was published, Cornell University, Ohio State University, the University of California, and more have created initiatives to settle the debt they owe to Indigenous communities.
“This investigation produced a foundational piece of journalism that forces a reckoning with dark origins of many of our nation’s universities. Through maps, interactives and analysis of archival materials that were almost lost to time, the sheer magnitude of this effort is breathtaking, and its findings are no less impressive,” said the judges. “This examination of land grant universities will facilitate important research and journalism moving forward.”
A full list of this year’s winners can be found here.