Reorganizing Higher Education
in the Shadow of the Great War
The story begins in World War I. After Congress answered President Woodrow Wilson’s call for war on Germany in April 1917, the U.S. government extended its reach into the lives of average Americans in ways not seen since the Civil War. The Selective Service System conscripted 2.8 million young men for military duty; the War Industries Board, headed by the indomitable Bernard Baruch, exerted strong-armed federal oversight of American business; and the Committee on Public Information, the government’s official propaganda wing, directed by newspaperman George Creel, whipped up home-front patriotism to lethal levels. In rapid order, the Great War made clear what had been obvious for a long time: when need be the federal government could become a powerful bureaucratic machine.1
No institution was haunted more by the specter of wartime bureaucracy than the modern university. The loss of half of all male students to military duty, combined with the resultant loss of tuition income, compelled many university heads to wonder whether the complete discontinuance of normal educational activities could be too far off.2 To make up for war’s human and financial tolls, American higher education sought aid and comfort from the federal government. What it got instead was a full frontal assault from the U.S. Army, in the fall term of 1918, when some five hundred colleges and universities were converted into de facto army boot camps. College presidents, desperate to boost enrollments and contribute to the war effort, cut a deal with the army that granted student deferments in exchange for participation in one of the army’s reserve officer or special training corps’ programs. The largest program was the Student Army Training Corps, which inflamed passions by reminding students “It’s patriotic to go to college.” As college leaders had hoped, the program lifted enrollments and revenues as well as many students’ nationalist fervor.3
Initial excitement quickly faded. Martial imperatives—morning drill, mandatory “war issue” courses, and the presence of army commanders—overwhelmed normal, day-to-day campus operations. No doubt academic freedom
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Publication information: Book title: Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century. Contributors: Christopher P. Loss - Author. Publisher: Princeton University Press. Place of publication: Princeton, NJ. Publication year: 2012. Page number: 19.
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