Seven U.S. presidents commend UMUC’s service to our nation’s military
It was only fitting that Dwight Eisenhower was the first of seven U.S. presidents to officially acknowledge the University of Maryland’s work to provide college classes for the U.S. military around the world.
As the Supreme Commander of NATO forces in Europe in 1950, Eisenhower must have been well aware of the new Defense Department regulations that required all military officers to have at least two years of college education.
Just a few months before Eisenhower took the command, George Kabat, dean of the University of Maryland’s College of Special and Continuation Studies—the predecessor to today’s University of Maryland University College (UMUC)—traveled to Frankfurt and Heidelberg in American-occupied West Germany to scout out locations for college classrooms.
It was mid-August 1949, three months after the end of the Berlin Airlift and four months after the birth of NATO. In another 10 months, the United States would be embroiled in the Korean War.
Only the University of Maryland had responded to the Defense Department’s invitation to provide overseas campuses in Europe. When Kabat returned to Maryland on September 3, a Baltimore Sun story said:
“Kabat revealed that when this new plan in college education was presented to Lieutenant General Clarence R. Huebner, deputy commander-in-chief in Europe, he asked three questions: ‘How will it operate? Will it work? How much will it cost?’ When the facts were explained, he replied, ‘What are we waiting for? Let’s get the project started.'”
Kabat had little more than a weekend to put together a faculty of seven professors willing to turn their lives upside down to move to a Germany still devastated by war—a tinderbox with the potential to flare up into World War III. They left October 2, 1950, packing everything required for college classes into a few footlockers, and loading them aboard a C-121 Constellation for a 23-hour flight to Germany.
That first month, more than 1,800 military personnel signed up to take classes, overwhelming the seven professors. And that was just the beginning.
During the 1950s, France, Ethiopia, Morocco, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Netherlands were added to the list of countries where the university offered classes. And in 1956, University of Maryland took over from the University of California to provide education for troops in Japan, Okinawa, and South Korea, launching the Asian Division.
By then, the sun never set on the University of Maryland.
On February 17, 1959, as President Eisenhower entered the second half of his second term, the military program had become so large that Eisenhower commended the work in a letter to Ray Ehrensberger, dean of University College:
“The fact that more than twenty thousand members of our Armed Forces are now enrolled in the overseas education program is most heartening. This is further proof of Americans’ respect for higher learning and, in particular, the eagerness of the men and women of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to take advantage of their educational opportunities.”
After World War II, education and military service became intertwined. Whether it was benefits from the GI Bill that gave education grants to returning veterans or opportunities for college enrollment for active duty troops in the United States or around the world, the U.S. government promised that if you joined the military, you would have the opportunity to earn a college education.
Many analysts see this as one of the great contributions to the growth and success of the American economy in the postwar world. And from the beginning, Maryland has been in the forefront in war zones and outposts around the world.
A program that began as a branch of the University of Maryland’s education department has grown to its own separate university—University of Maryland University College. In May, thousands of military personnel and their dependents at UMUC locations around the world earned bachelor’s, master’s, and even doctoral degrees.
That included troops fighting in Afghanistan, some of whom were awarded their degrees in bunkers sheltered from rocket attack.
“Military education is part of the DNA of UMUC,” said Javier Miyares, the university’s president. “Last year, we enrolled 92,000 students, and a little more than half of them are military or military affiliates—veterans, dependents.”
John F. Kennedy was the second president to recognize UMUC’s commitment to the nation. From the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis to the construction of the Berlin Wall and Chinese threats against Taiwan, the Cold War kept U.S. military personnel on alert around the world. UMUC faculty were with them. As weapons became more sophisticated, education became more crucial.
When the university hosted an Armed Forces Education Conference in 1962, Kennedy sent a telegram to Dean Ehrensberger:
“The continued education of the members of our armed forces is essential to the future of our country and to our goal of peace with freedom for all peoples. For the contributions you have made in the past, I commend you and wish you continuing success in your important mission for the future.”
As well as serving in South Korea, Okinawa, and other U.S. bases in Asia and the Pacific, UMUC faculty and staff were in the thick of the Vietnam War. From the first classes held in Saigon in January 1963, the program expanded to 24 military bases across South Vietnam. This was the first time—but certainly not the last—that UMUC faculty followed the troops into a war zone.
Earl Warren, chief justice of the United States, traveled to Heidelberg for the May 29, 1966, UMUC commencement ceremonies. He took with him a letter from President Lyndon Johnson.
“The make-up of this class is as it should be,” Johnson wrote. “Our military personnel no longer rely on brawn but on brains—and it is to their everlasting credit that they have seen fit to further their education.”
The troops, he wrote, “constitute some of our most effective ambassadors abroad and their academic work is in keeping with our mission.”
International diplomacy and revolution have always been the backdrop of UMUC’s work. When Charles de Gaulle forced NATO out of France in 1966, closing all of the U.S. bases there, UMUC had no choice but to shut down programs at 30 sites in the country. A revolution against the king of Libya in the late 1960s disrupted the UMUC program serving Wheelus Air Base. According to a report in the Marylander:
“Water pipes were blown up, bombs were thrown, and telephone lines were cut down. The 130 Maryland students asked for a continuation of courses there, and long-time lecturer D r. James Butler was sent to Tripoli in the hope that his years of experience in teaching and administration could help the education center through its difficulties. He found the center abandoned, records scattered and great confusion.”
But that didn’t stop Butler. He spent hours interviewing students, registering them for courses. He rounded up instructors and had the program up and running by the next term.
The traumatic experience of the Vietnam War, with sullen conscripts forced to fight as hundreds of thousands of protestors rocked the streets of Washington and other cities, led to one of the most important changes in military policy—replacing the draft with an all-volunteer force. One of the lures of attracting volunteers was the chance to receive a government financed education.
With the Vietnam War still raging, President Richard M. Nixon noted how important education would become for the military’s future in a letter to the university dated December 6, 1972, just after his reelection. Nixon wrote:
“You will be charting future directions in education for members of the Armed Forces at a time when we are only months away from a completely volunteer military service. The effectiveness of this service will depend very largely on how fully its members share in the life of our society and how well they use its benefits and opportunities.
Among these, education ranks high both as a source of individual attainment and collective strength.
A quarter century after the seven intrepid professors boarded the Air Force Constellation, President Gerald Ford marked the silver anniversary of the program with a note on October 18, 1974.
“I know that during some of these years your courses were taught amidst the tensions of cold war and under trying physical circumstances . . . ,” Ford wrote. The history of the program, he said, “marks a splendid cooperative endeavor between the University of Maryland and our Armed Forces.”
After the Vietnam War, the UMUC Far East Division was still spread thin and wide as faculty hopped from programs, sometimes in remote outposts, ranging from Okinawa to South Korea to Thailand. Instructors traveled by plane, train, and sometimes by sam loe, a three-wheeled pedicab, to reach U.S. servicemen seeking an education. They earned a reputation as the university’s “Academic Foreign Legion” with the motto “Have Syllabus, Will Travel.”
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of UMUC’s Far East Division, President Ronald Reagan wrote:
“The All Volunteer Force requires these educational services now more than ever. Technological advances in weaponry and tactics have placed new skill requirements and responsibilities upon our military, increasing the need for higher level education and training.”
Shortly after the 25th anniversary, the Far East Division changed its name to the Asian Division. President Reagan was back again on February 3, 1986, to mark the 30th anniversary of UMUC’s work in the region. He noted that the school prepares “our military personnel for a wide variety of assignments during their careers in the Armed Forces and later on as they continue to serve their country in civilian capacities.”
After the Cold War ended following the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1991, UMUC had to scramble to keep up with the drawdown of American troops in Europe. In Munich alone, the number of full-time students dropped from 650 in the mid-1980s to 150 a decade later. Classes in Europe were disrupted in 1990 and 1991 when U.S. troops there were deployed to beat back the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. And in October 1993, UMUC became the first American university to offer a course for U.S. military personnel serving in the former Yugoslavia.
In the Philippines, classes were disrupted when Mount Pinatubo erupted in June 1991, shattering windows, sending rocks crashing through roofs, and filling the air with so much ash and debris that breathing became difficult. And then the Philippine government forced all U.S. military bases to close. Nonetheless, by its golden anniversary, UMUC’s Asian Division was offering courses in nearly 60 locations in 11 countries, territories, and dependencies.
To celebrate UMUC’s 50th anniversary, President Clinton sent a letter on July 10, 1996, noting that, “Our nation relies on schools such as yours to supply the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in the twenty-first century.”
These letters from the commanders in chief have one thing in common. They all note the necessity of providing a first-rate education for the men and women who serve in the nation’s military. And they applaud the sacrifice of UMUC faculty for heading around the world to reach the soldiers, sailors, and marines wherever they might be.
Finding faculty to go to hardship posts—even in the harsh, confining conditions of Afghanistan—has never been difficult, according to President Miyares.
“We are never short of faculty willing to teach in war zones, including Afghanistan” he said. “They have a commitment to military education. Some of them may have been in the military before. There may be an element of liking to see the whole world. There is a sense of adventure that I think speaks to them, and working with the troops speaks very much to them.”
Time and again, UMUC faculty known as “downrangers” have ventured into remote parts of war zones, traveling dangerous routes to reach accommodations that sometimes were little better than cobweb-filled garden shacks, said Allan Berg, senior vice president for Overseas Operations.
“One of the fundamental principles of successful UMUC downrangers,” Berg said, “is to make do with what you have and be thankful for it.”
Conditions are tougher in Afghanistan than most people know, Miyares said.
“Many of our faculty and staff in Afghanistan have, at one point or another, experienced rocket attacks,” Miyares said. “So it is a challenge. But the challenge is not getting people to volunteer.”
As forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan and Okinawa, UMUC faculty will be uprooted, he said. But if the troops move to Guam or back to the Philippines as military strategists look for the best places to station them, UMUC faculty members will follow, even if it means deploying to a floating base in the Persian Gulf, as has been proposed.
In Heidelberg, where UMUC first landed in 1949, the last U.S. troops soon will be moving out. The UMUC site will close, but it will leave behind a rich legacy of cooperation and education that spans from the reconstruction of postwar Germany, through the defense of Western Europe, the Cold War, and the NATO mission to Afghanistan.
Where the “Academic Foreign Legion” will head next is open to speculation.
“All you can predict is that things will change and they will change overnight,” Miyares said. “Our troops will continue to be a military support power. And we will be right there. We just don’t when and where.”