By Robert Devens

The university became the democratic, large-scale institution we know today largely as a result of adapting and responding to the pressing needs of World War II. As an educator, Chancellor Samuel P. Capen held fast to the notion that the University of Buffalo should be a vital contributor to the national interest during wartime.

"The university," he wrote, "must devote all of its available resources, human and material, to the task of specific training for war-related activities both military and civilian." In the early 1940s, however, Capen could not have predicted that the war-related demand for the university's resources would continue long after the war had ended, and that the University of Buffalo would be transformed in the process.

As early as the summer of 1941, the campus hosted government-subsidized war training programs in engineering, science and management. In 1942, a special course dealing with poisonous gases trained experts to help the public in the event of a gas attack. As the war continued and training was provided in a widening range of professions, the demographics of the university changed radically. Such departments as medicine and dentistry, with their crucial training programs, witnessed a complete metamorphosis of their student bodies, until at the peak of the war, up to 80 percent of their students belonged to training units.

Meanwhile, Selective Service laws made it ever more difficult for a student to defer his time in the military, and promising jobs in wartime industries further depleted the supply of civilian students. By 1944, civilian enrollment had fallen by 50 percent. Despite this figure, total enrollment fell by only seven percent: what the university had lost in civilian students, it had almost totally recouped in military students.

Those departments that did not provide a service valued by the government watched their numbers plummet, sometimes by as much as 60 percent or more. Samuel Capen, although he was in favor of mobilizing the university's resources behind the war effort, despaired that departments whose main concern was "cultural heritage" should be allowed to wither. With regretful but resilient dry humor, Capen frequently bemoaned the downsizing of these departments "to about the size of a corporal's guard." He believed that the study of business or the arts and sciences was just as important to the national health as the training of medical corps, and that as the repositories of "moral and aesthetic values," the humanities were "the complete antithesis" of the Nazi enemy's world-view.

While Capen furrowed his brow over the survival of the humanities and the training of war units, the university's student newspaper, the Bee, remained largely concerned with the typical highlights of student social life-prom queens, fraternity life, carnivals, and the like.

Meanwhile, many faculty were taking leaves of absence to serve in the armed forces. In fact, the university granted nearly 80 military-related leaves each year of the war. Most absent instructors belonged to the medical school, but other fields-including history and German-lost faculty to special operations. Faculty who did not leave Buffalo to serve in the military were forced to curtail their research and to accept in its place bulging classrooms and teaching assignments far afield of their specialties.

With the passing of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, or G.I. Bill, in 1944, it became clear that the university's enrollment would never again settle at its prewar low. Under the education provisions of the bill, veterans were entitled to an education or training of their choice, for which the government would pay all fees and expenses, plus $50 per month living allowance. During the 1944-45 academic year, 100 students had already enrolled at the University of Buffalo under the G.I. Bill.

Despite having the support of politicians and G.I.s, the new bill was not warmly embraced by all college leaders. James Conant, president of Harvard, worried that "we may find the least capable among the war generation ... flooding the facilities for advanced education." University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins was sharply critical of what he saw as the bill's unstated aim, complaining that "education is not a device for coping with mass unemployment." Capen, however, remained as convinced of the university's postwar duties as he had been of its duties during wartime. While assuring the University Council that no waiving of requirements or lowering of standards would be allowed or tolerated, he unequivocally affirmed that the university was "determined to extend every possible assistance to returning servicemen and women."

Although Capen welcomed the opportunity to educate veterans, he knew that the shape of the university would be changed by their presence. In 1946, he wrote that the university would need to "adapt itself to a different conception of its size and character." Statistics proved him right: the 1945-46 school year witnessed a 112 percent increase in full-time day enrollment. In the following year, enrollment rocketed a further 85 percent and by the 1948-49 peak of veteran enrollment, ex-servicemen accounted for nearly 7,000 of the university's total population of 13,563. Central to university planners was the interesting fact that veterans were more likely to enroll in some departments than others: in 1946-47, 89 percent of the students in engineering were veterans; 86 percent in the School of Business Administration were veterans; and 84 percent of training lawyers were veterans. One dean referred to this period of the university's history as the "G.I. bulge."

In academic performance, the ex-servicemen and women surpassed everyone's expectations and startled those who had predicted that the G.I.s' ability to succeed would be compromised by age, marital status, or lack of familiarity with a university setting. Benjamin Fine, education editor of the New York Times, wrote in 1947 that the G.I.s' consistently impressive academic standing was "the most astonishing fact in the history of American higher education"; that they were "hogging the honor rolls and the deans' lists" and "walking away with the top marks in all of their courses." Rather than hindering their success, the veterans' worldliness, maturity, and age (which averaged 25) gave them an advantage over their 18- to 20- year-old classmates.

Growing numbers of enrolled veterans made action and change at all levels of university life and administration imperative. One crucial step taken by the University Council was the creation of a new three-step acceptance policy that would deal fairly with the postwar influx of students. First, local high schools were asked to estimate how many students they would be sending to the university, and places were set aside in advance for them. Then the university accepted, up to its limits, veterans from the area. Finally, if space remained, other veterans of "exceptionally high academic standing" might be accepted, but could account for no more than three percent of the student body.

The university's Centennial Campaign Fund of 1947 provided much of the financial resources for new campus facilities and remodeling of others.

The postwar surge of building development was costly, necessary, and fairly extensive; students of the university at the time, however, may not have experienced their campus as overwhelmingly spacious. In late 1947, an article in the university's second student newspaper, the Argus, began by asking readers, "Does it seem crowded around here?" We hardly need to guess the answer.


Related Web Site: The University Archives' Online Sesquicentennial exhibit