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Over the last century, every societal upheaval has influenced academic life in the United States. The Great Recession of 2008 forced painful belt-tightening. The attacks on Sept. 11 changed how colleges and universities employ campus security. The Vietnam War created a politically charged climate on campuses.

Of all the societal events since World War II, however, the pandemic has impacted higher education the most. Campuses have shut down, teaching and learning has been transformed, and budgets have been devastated. Given the cataclysmic impact of both events, an understanding of how higher education as a system responded to World War II compared to today’s pandemic is useful in order to identify the path forward.

After World War II, American higher education rapidly expanded and became an engine of opportunity and a model for the world. The GI Bill enabled enlisted men and women to access the funds necessary to attend college; it was also a windfall for colleges and universities financially hammered by the war. In addition, federal, state and foundation funding for research grew exponentially, in large part because of the impressive research that universities carried out throughout the war.

Colleges and universities, in fact, enacted many changes in response to World War II. Many institutions like the University of Maryland speeded up learning so that students could graduate in three years and enlist. Summer vacations were compressed into a handful of weeks. A full academic term occurred in the summer. Students began classes the summer before freshman year to accelerate graduation.

Some institutions drastically changed their curriculum to meet the country’s pressing needs. “Education will make no significant contribution to democracy,” Columbia University professor Thomas Briggs said, “if it continues to teach the traditional curriculum.” Other institutions, such as Princeton University, offered a full panoply of courses and training geared toward military recruits.

Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, offered the government the research infrastructure of the university after Pearl Harbor. The overall emphasis of higher education was nicely summarized by James Conant, president of Harvard. He said in 1941, “Each one of us stands ready to do his part in insuring that a speedy and complete victory is ours. To this end, I pledge all the resources of Harvard University.” One outcome was that by the fall of 1942, as many as 3,000 armed forces personnel were taking classes at Harvard.

Historian and author John Thelin has observed that, in World War II, “Colleges and universities were very good partners” with the government, and that “the military and federal bureaucracy were just amazed at how responsive and resourceful the scientists and other professors were.” Indeed, the work that academic researchers undertook during the war led in part to the creation of agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

In short, higher education was a public good, and the public saw the concrete ways that it was working to support the country during a world war.

Telling Differences

Today, some similarities of response exist, of course, with academe’s attempts to deal with the coronavirus. Many research universities have been significantly involved in efforts to understand the virus and how to fight it. A number of institutions have shortened the academic calendar to minimize infection. Faculty members, so often perceived and portrayed as stubbornly against change, have rapidly restructured teaching and learning during the pandemic.

What are most telling, however, are the differences between World War II and today. An obvious one is that the war transformed campuses into hubs of activity, whereas they have been largely deserted during the virus, especially as the advent of digital technologies has made teaching from a distance possible today.

Even with the significant stimulus funding from the Biden administration, we in higher ed are also unlikely to see a GI Bill or other federal, state and foundation support of the magnitude that will resolve the fiscal issues caused by the pandemic, as well as long-standing concerns like enrollment declines. Nor will we probably experience a dramatic increase in college going once the pandemic is over. Indeed, we could see a decrease in attendance at some institutions such as community colleges. Further, international student tuition dollars -- many institutions’ cash cow -- are likely to continue to shrink.

Perhaps the most significant difference, however, is between the stance higher education took then and the one it has taken recently -- and the resultant public perception of academe. To be sure, we have seen fine examples of postsecondary institutions aggressively taking on additional tasks and working to overcome the virus. The University of California, Davis, for instance, has transformed its campus into a testing center not only for its constituents but also for the entire region.

The public’s perception, however, is not that of postsecondary institutions vitally engaged in fighting the pandemic in the way that academe helped fight World War II. The overwhelming sense one gets from academe is that of self-interest -- some would say survival -- rather than the public good.

Everyone will agree that financial challenges, especially for smaller regional private and public institutions, are deeply worrisome and have precluded some institutions from greater efforts to support the broader society. And yet what prevented more public colleges and universities from becoming a cohesive network of testing and vaccination centers? The federal testing and distribution system is a patchwork quilt of stadiums, churches, libraries and pharmacies all vying to get supplies -- and offering different instructions. Many more of our public two- and four-year institutions could have taken leadership for that distribution in a more systematic and organized manner.

Again, many campuses during the pandemic have been largely empty. The country faces a critical crisis of homelessness. What prevented more of our urban public and private institutions from offering to fill empty campus beds to help those most at risk?

For more than a generation, higher education and the larger public have been in a rather nonharmonious duet. Colleges and universities have asked for increased resources, and legislatures, in turn, have reduced resources. A public good, logically, is funded by the public.

In California’s vaunted Master Plan of the 1950s, for example, the belief was that tuition was free for those who desired a postsecondary education. The assumption was that what took place on a campus served the larger public. Logically, when a crisis such as a war happened, institutions turned to focus intensively on serving the public. The result was that higher education and society were tightly interwoven, and the citizenry had an overwhelmingly positive perception of academe.

Today, however, higher education is largely a bystander to the challenges that confront society, and we are reaping what we have sown. Most institutions are simply struggling to keep their institutions afloat. If the public were asked how important postsecondary institutions have been in fighting COVID, many people would not understand the question. Higher education is viewed more as a spectator than a participant.

Leaders With a Tin Cup

What might we learn, then, from the stance of higher education during World War II?

The decrease in public funding has reduced the ethos that used to define academic life. Campuses are too busy trying to manage their own affairs without taking on the added responsibility of grappling with the momentous crises confronting society. If there is a common theme that one hears from higher education today, it is that we are short of funds. Rather than Conant assuring society that everyone in academe will “do [their] part,” we have leaders with a tin cup in desperate search of revenue.

Thus, higher education is no longer well positioned to help meet the pressing needs of the broader world around us. The 21st century, however, demands it.

Before the Civil War, about 700 colleges had gone out of business. One explanation might be what we will say as some of our current institutions do so, as well: that there was simply not enough money to support such institutions. But another way to think about 19th-century closures is that those institutions were no longer responsive to the needs of those whom they purported to serve.

To be responsive, as academe was during World War II, higher education must become much more service oriented. I appreciate that thoughtful critiques of life’s great problems frequently require objective observers who analyze from a distance. Yet at other times, such as when a pandemic strikes the world, all of us in higher education must rise to the occasion and become centrally involved with the great struggles of the day. In serving others better, we enhance our contributions to those who access higher education and will attract the resources needed to continue our work. A reinvestment in the public good requires that the good first invest more in the public.

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