"Aspiring to Greatness: West Virginia University Since World War II" by Ronald L. Lewis, West Virginia University Press, 2013, 656 pages. Hardcover, $39.99.CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Population trends, odd state laws, innovative administrators, the G.I. Bill and today's commercialization of higher education have all played significant roles in the history of West Virginia University.
Ronald L. Lewis, a WVU history professor, offers provocative insights about the post-World War II history of the state's largest university, when it expanded dramatically.
He also looks into the whole nation's higher education system, in "Aspiring to Greatness: West Virginia University Since World War II" -- his new book released today.
In writing his new book, Lewis said, "I was looking to explain how this institution moved from a small provincial university at the end of World War II, with a few thousand students, to 30,000 students knocking on the doors today, bringing national prominence to WVU. How do we explain getting there?"
The GI Bill, which passed in June 1944, gave veterans financial support they needed to attend college.
"People thought that WVU's 3,000 students in 1946 might double when the GIs came back. It did. And it kept doubling. They start having kids and their kids start coming to school -- the baby boomers," Lewis said during an interview with the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
WVU tripled in size between 1946 and 1958. Black students began coming to WVU in 1954. The 1960s and early 1970s were times of even greater expansion.
"By the early 1970s, WVU had between 25,000 and 27,000 students. That was historically significant, especially for a small rural state," Lewis said. "But in 1975, we saw a decline in students."
The numbers rose again, from 21,500 students to 30,000 students, while David C. Hardesty Jr. was WVU president between 1995 and 2007.
Nationally, the baby-boomer generation was a major factor in increasing college enrollments across the nation.
"Between 1955 and 1970, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States ballooned from 15 to 25 million," Lewis points out in his book.
Dramatic changes nationally included:
* The percentage of male college students dropped from 71 percent in 1947 to 42 percent by 2010.
* The percentage of white, non-Hispanic students dropped from 94 percent in 1965 to 66 percent in 2010.
Today, WVU has more than 100 foreign exchange programs. Students travel abroad to study at universities in those other countries, while students from those countries come to Morgantown.
Lewis has written six previous books including: "Black Coal Miners in America: Race, Class and Community Conflict, 1780-1980," "Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920" and "Welsh Americans: A History of Assimilation in the Coalfields."
Millions in federal research money lost
When Irvin Stewart was WVU president from 1947 to 1957, he tried to attract government research money to WVU.
Stewart was in a particularly good position to do so. He was the "right hand man" for Vannevar Bush, who headed the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development throughout World War II.
"Stewart hired all of the personnel for the Manhattan Project," Lewis said. "Vannevar Bush also created the National Science Foundation."
The Manhattan Project developed the atomic bombs used against Japan in 1945, at the end of World War II.
But one antiquated state law prohibited Stewart from bringing tens of millions of dollars in federal research money to WVU. That law prohibited all public agencies from going into debt.
In his introduction to Lewis's book, Charles M. Vest points out West Virginia state institutions could not "accept federally funded projects unless they could finance the contract.
"The federal government reimbursed universities or other contractors for the research work once it was completed, so the university needed to have the cash to fund the work and be reimbursed later. The University was not able to accept such contracts under state law," Vest writes.
"Since it was against the law in West Virginia for public agencies to go into debt," Lewis said, "you had to fund all research yourself."
During those years, WVU lost funds that would have gone to build laboratories and research centers on its campus.
"WVU missed out by a simple law that prevented a public agency to go into debt even though you were going to reap all that money back," Lewis said.
Things got better.
"External research funding for WVU, which remained fairly minimal in the 1970s and early 1980s, is now $180 million a year. They are working on enhancing that to get more money in the future and to have more infrastructure built."
Some governors hurt WVU and other state universities by budget cuts, Lewis believes.
"That reached a low level under Gov. Bob Wise, who you would have thought of as being a guy friendly to education.