The relationship between universities and the military has made an about-face over several decades, transforming from friction in 1970 to affection in 2012.
Forty-two years ago, animosity toward the military boiled on university campuses. Vietnam War protests weren't confined to Cal-Berkeley, Columbia and other institutions on the coasts. They occurred at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Colorado State University and dozens of other schools in the Midwest and across the nation.
There was no thought of protest Thursday at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. In a sunny atrium there, NU administrators celebrated winning a lucrative contract to perform research tasks for Bellevue-based StratCom and other military entities.
NU beat out several other universities and joined a group, including two University of California campuses, that have large University Affiliated Research Contracts with the military.
Tim Borstelmann, a UNL history professor, said the anti-war period of the late '60s and early '70s was the exception. “And it's hard to imagine today,” Borstelmann said. “That sense of rage was really fierce.”
The landmark events took place in May 1970. That's when four students at Kent State University in Ohio were shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsmen. Two people were killed that month at Jackson State University in Mississippi.
At Colorado State, activists burned the oldest major building on campus, Old Main, in May 1970. And at UNL, students occupied the Military and Naval Science Building in a protest one night.
UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman said the attitude of higher education is much different today toward the military. The fact that many soldiers were drafted into military service against their will contributed to the Vietnam War's unpopularity on campuses, he said.
Borstelmann said protesters saw the United States' involvement in Vietnam as aggressive offensive warfare victimizing many Vietnamese civilians.
The Vietnam War lasted a long time with little to show for it to the American public, said Robert Gudmestad, an associate professor of history at Colorado State. Campus protests at the time also stemmed from tense race relations in the nation and a desire to challenge authority, including university presidents, Gudmestad said.
For the most part, relations between universities and the military have been positive, Gudmestad and Borstelmann said.
World War II veterans in big numbers used the GI bill to attend college, a great boon to universities at the time, Gudmestad said.
Borstelmann said the Defense Department has served as a major funder of universities going back to the late 1940s. Universities such as the prestigious Stanford grew in part with substantial research money granted by the military.
A resurgence of patriotism, some cultivated by the government, occurred with the Gulf War of 1990-91, Gudmestad said. Through televised briefings overseen by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the military showed “this war is being fought in a very smart way, a very scientific way,” as compared to the Vietnam War, Gudmestad said.
People set out yellow ribbons and “support our troops” decals. Borstelmann said that increasingly, even dissenters against recent wars have shown “a real sense that we need to stand up for individual troops” and respect the difficulties soldiers have experienced.
Then the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on American soil occurred, and the Defense Department again became a critical entity, with “defense” being the operative word for its mission.
NU administrators on Thursday repeatedly talked about the importance of doing military research that benefits national security. They called it an honor and a hefty responsibility to play a role in deterring enemy efforts against the United States.
Their work will focus on technology to defend soldiers and Americans, they said, not on offensive measures. University professors who aren't at ease performing military research won't be required to do so.
Borstelmann said college students respect the military today. National polls indicate that Americans believe in the military more than they do in other institutions. A 2010 Harris poll, for instance, found that 59 percent had a great deal of confidence in the military, compared with 35 percent who had confidence in colleges, 26 percent in religion and 8 percent in Congress.
And just as veterans returned from war and went to college 65 years ago, that is happening today. At the University of Nebraska at Omaha, for instance, 814 people used Veterans Affairs educational benefits (including the GI bill) this fall, up from 719 last fall and 671 in fall 2010.
UNL and CSU now are described as “military friendly” schools in a GI publication.
Iowa State's ROTC men and women recently took first place in a 24-hour Ranger Challenge competition against units from other schools. The Iowa State student newspaper put that news on its front page, said Maj. Rick Smith, who runs Iowa State's ROTC program.
“We have an incredible relationship here with Iowa State University and their support for the ROTC program,” Smith said.
UNL's Perlman said ROTC students wear their uniforms proudly on campus today. At commencement, he said, the ROTC program inevitably receives a standing ovation.
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