Our History Informing Our Future
At the start of World War II, Syracuse University was a small teaching college serving a student body of approximately 5,000 students. As the end of the war approached, Syracuse University Chancellor William Tolley was asked by President Roosevelt to serve as a member of a small group of college and university leaders, tasked with creating what would ultimately become the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 – more commonly known as the GI Bill.
Today most historians assert that the GI Bill is among the most important legislative acts in the history of this country, as the legislation played a key role in positioning the U.S. as a technological superpower throughout the 21st century. Specifically, following the war, the GI Bill empowered eight million veterans to pursue higher education, including three Presidents, three Supreme Court justices, 14 Nobel Prize winners, 24 Pulitzer Prize winners, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 450,000 engineers, and countless other members of what has been famously described as the “Greatest Generation.”
Importantly, you can’t tell the story of the post-WWII GI Bill and that Greatest Generation, without telling the story of Syracuse University.
That’s true not only because of Chancellor Tolley’s role in creating the GI Bill, but more than that it’s the case because Syracuse University – in a way dramatically different than almost any other college or university in America – embraced the opportunity to open the doors of higher-education to the nation’s returning veterans – bringing more than 10,000 veterans to our campus as students, in the years following the end of the war. No school in New York State welcomed more returning veterans to campus than did Syracuse University, and only a handful of colleges and universities in America count more of the Greatest Generation as graduates.
Chancellor’s Tolley’s decision to kick open the doors of Syracuse University to post-WWII veterans was about something more than a sense of obligation. It was a very strategic and purposeful decision, as Tolley understood that engaging veterans – those who he intuitively realized would come to lead our nation in the pursuit of social and economic prosperity over the next century – represented an opportunity to grow and transform Syracuse University for the better. Today Syracuse University is the institution we know and appreciate because of this insight.
In the 70+ years since the end of WWII, Syracuse University’s connection to the veteran- and military-connected community has remained strong, robust, and central to our identity. For example:
- For the past 60 years, Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management and Maxwell School of Citizenship have been home to the Defense Comptroller Program (DCP), training the leadership of the DoD’s financial management community. Students come for a 14-month program, where they earn a dual degree (MBA/MPA), and then return to service as military officers.
- For more than 50 years, Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications has been the home to the DoD’s School of Military Photo-Journalism. Students come for a 12-month program, where they are trained as photographers and film journalists, and then return to military service.
- For more than 20 years, Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship has been home to the National Security Studies Program, training senior military leaders (General Officers and Senior Executive Service) in the fundamentals of global security.
- Founded in 1918, Syracuse University is home to the oldest, continuously operating Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program in all of America. Students receive full-tuition scholarships (out of high school) to attend Syracuse University, and after graduation go on to serve as officers in either the U.S. Army, or the U.S. Air Force.
- Syracuse University is home to the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), nation’s first interdisciplinary academic focused solely on the social, economic, and wellness concerns of the nation’s 22.5 million veterans.
- Syracuse University is home (Law & Maxwell) to the Institute for National Security and Counter-Terrorism (INSCT), one of the nation’s leading academic institutes focused on interdisciplinary research, teaching, public service, and policy analysis in the fields of national and international security and counterterrorism.
- Veteran and military-connected themes have (for decades) represented a very significant percentage of sponsored research/programmatic funding generated at Syracuse University.
In summary, Syracuse University’s past and present connection to the veteran- and military connected community is not only central to our identity; it’s also one of the institution’s most rare, valuable, and differentiating resources. This is why, for example, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter chose to visit Syracuse University on his first domestic trip after being confirmed as Secretary. He came here because (in his words):
“The competence of this place (Syracuse University) makes it a preferred partner. You’ve been committed for a long time. You were way out in front in the early post-WWII years and so there’s a level of commitment and sophistication to the thinking here that we really need, an intellectual basis, that we get from a place that knows how to couple training with scholarship with action … and there is just no other place that does it like Syracuse.”
Our Past and Present, as a Future Opportunity
Syracuse University’s WWII Chancellor, William Tolley, kicked open the doors of this institution – wider than almost any college or university in the nation – and welcomed more than 10,000 returning war veterans to campus. Their experiences at Syracuse University, when combined with their military experiences and skills, accelerated their potential, as both individuals and citizens, to the benefit of our nation.
Importantly, it’s also true that they changed our institution.
They came to our campus with global experiences, broad diversity, and a commitment to service. In our classrooms, on our athletic fields, and in our student organizations they proved to be adept at team building, resilient, resourceful, and entrepreneurial. Further, they were mature beyond their years, honest to a fault, fiercely loyal to the institution, and exercised dynamic leadership abilities that had been tested and proven under the most real world conditions imaginable.
They made us better, and in turn we helped them, quite literally, change the world.
Now today, more than 3-million veterans of the post-9/11 generation are coming home from the longest sustained period of military conflict in this country’s history. In anticipation, when President Obama signed the post-9/11 GI Bill into law he said that “we do this because these men and women must now be prepared to lead our nation in the peaceful pursuit of economic leadership in the 21st century.”
When Chancellor Kent Syverud arrived in 2014, he recognized the University’s past and present engagement with the veteran- and military connected community as a rare, valuable, and differentiating resource – one that could potentially seed the conditions for future-focused opportunity at Syracuse University. It’s for this reason that at his inauguration, Chancellor Syverud announced that one of his strategic priorities is to seed and cultivate programs, policies, and innovative initiatives positioned to create Syracuse University as a national hub of thought leadership, research, and programming related to engaging the nation’s servicemembers, veterans, and their families.
This focus was incorporated into the University’s academic strategic planning process last year, in the form of a workgroup of faculty, staff and students tasked with investigating and informing future-focused opportunity connected to the University’s past and present engagement with the veteran- and military connected community. This workgroup concluded that Syracuse University has great strengths in many disciplines relevant to this space, including in our Institute for Veterans and Military Families and our schools and programs related to public health, disabilities, aging, speech and hearing, clinical psychology, biology, biomedical engineering, child and family studies, food studies, social work, education, exercise science, design, communications, and many other areas.
More than all of that, it also became clear that today’s generation of great American universities – and great university leaders – will be defined and redefined based on the choices they make positioned to engage those men and women who have worn the cloth of the nation during this time of war. Specifically, the best will enact the conditions where our veterans can serve us yet again; that is, conditions that empower them as students, employees, leaders, and as alumni, to elevate themselves AND their academic institutions as national leaders in the pursuit of social and economic prosperity for the next century.
This is why Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud has made a commitment to veterans a central focus of his vision for the future: as he stated at his inauguration, “if we do this, we will have done so much for our university, for this country, and for our veterans.” Importantly we make this commitment not from a place of obligation, but instead because we know engaging our nation’s veterans will make Syracuse University better, and in turn we can help them, quite literally, change the world.