The explosion in the number of universities and college students began with war, and would be sustained by it. The G.I. Bill of Rights gave soldiers returning from World War II an opportunity few of them had before the war — to attend college. Veteran’s benefits turned America’s demobilized army into the biggest influx of college students in the nation’s history.
But everyone knew international trouble hadn’t ended with the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945. The Soviet Union rose from the ashes of war to cast its shadow over eastern Europe and Asia. The emerging Cold War involved much more than military and ideological issues, however.
The U.S.S.R. successfully tested atomic and hydrogen bombs, ending the U.S.’s post-war monopoly. The onset of the nuclear age promised a host of deadly new technologies that required an educated work force to research and develop. The diplomatic demands of the Cold War called for agents and ambassadors educated in cultures and languages spanning the globe.
In the 1950s, the government enlisted universities in the fight against communism. Established heavyweights like Harvard and MIT held think tanks and devised laboratories to shape U.S. strategy and technology. But something had to be done to educate more people; private aspirations and public duty demanded it.
The nation’s first public university to open in the twentieth century was USF, a child of the Cold War. During the time the university was being constructed and planned, the Soviets launched Sputnik, Earth’s first man-made satellite. News of the Communist achievement chilled citizens and set America on a course of school building rather than nation building.
Just as the government spawned USF, it would also nurture it with varying degrees of success over the years. In 1961, President John Allen began what would become the annual ritual of begging Tallahassee for a piece of the educational pie. That year he asked for $9 million, but Gov. Farris Bryant only saw fit to part with $2.3 million. Over the years, USF’s budget largely depended upon the fortunes of the state and federal coffers, bringing a budget crisis at least once a decade.
The Sputnik scare roused President John F. Kennedy to start a desperate and expensive effort to outdo Russia by putting a man on the moon. Florida’s “Space Coast” near Cape Canaveral cropped up just as USF established itself. For much of the 1960s, USF hosted the Southeastern Conference on Aerospace Sciences, co-sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation. The conference drew America’s leading aerospace scientists, who countered Sputnik with a satellite named “Echo,” which was on display here during the 1961 conference.
Cooperation between USF and the Space Coast increased. The conference in 1961 drew 30 of America’s top scientists. In 1964, the number increased to 200. NASA approved a Work Study Cooperative Program wherein 11 teams of students helped the agency in a variety of locations and projects. NASA became one of the main employers of USF science and engineering graduates for years.
Another Kennedy initiative made waves on campus. Proportionally among colleges, USF produced the highest number of Peace Corps volunteers in the nation. The first, Joel Jackson, went to Sierra Leone in 1962 to teach fishermen how to use and maintain motorboats. The following year, history grad Karen Lee Seufert became the second to go abroad, this time to the Rio de Janeiro area of Brazil, where she helped residents with health and home economical issues. During the 1990s, Seufert worked in the Brazilian Embassy. Peace Corps recruiters signed up many more students over the years. A full 23 percent of the student body signed up for the Corps in 1964, The Oracle reported. In 1965, President Allen declared Peace Corps Week on campus.
In 1964, representative Sam Gibbons, always looking out for his constituents, brought a $16 million Veteran’s Administration hospital to Tampa. The VA normally built such facilities near medical schools, so the move sparked rumors that USF would get one in the future. President Allen began a long push over the next few years to obtain a medical school. Three local doctors lobbied for a community hospital near USF as well, and the Medical School became a reality in 1973.
The military furnished its hospital and veterans, but USF had plenty of opportunities to give back. Dr. Heinrich K. Aichhorn, chairman of USF’s astronomy department, devised a technique for stellar photography that interested the military. By assembling multiple overlapping photos like a mosaic, Aichhorn could create one large map that approximates the night sky. The U.S. Army Mapping Service enlisted USF’s help in creating such a map for their use.
For some people, such strong ties with the U.S. military and federal government called into question the purpose of universities. The Cold War’s education programs supported by the government emphasized the hard sciences, engineering, and the medical fields. The liberal arts often suffered as a result.A friendly argument between USF faculty brought the conflict to a climax in 1964.
USF professors Gerard Wagner and T.C. Helvey squared off in a debate over the roles of the humanities and sciences in America. Wagner spoke for many students when he argued for the humanities. “Why not a National Humanities Foundation?” Wagner said. “The humanities are necessary to develop the critical sense needed to understand ourselves and to preserve the best in our culture. I do not believe we are at war, and don’t believe we need competition among nations. The conflict is between pressure groups, and (is) economically based.”
After confiding that he really agreed with Wagner, Helvey lashed out on behalf of science, saying, “We scientists do not feel science and humanities must be balanced in education. The well being of our country comes first. The Russians have just put three men in a space ship. We don’t know how to do this. We are in a war now. Only the most naÃ¯ve people call it ‘competition.’ Let’s end the war first, maybe drop a couple of nuclear bombs, and then go on to the humanities.”
Over a decade after the Cold War ended, our nation’s priorities seem remarkably similar. What is the biggest difference between the 50-year War on communism and the open-ended “War on Terror”? With a sagging economy, shrinking tax revenue, and a decentralized enemy, this new war probably will not spawn anything like USF or NASA.