Citizens & Soldiers: The First 200 Years of Norwich University


In my final years at Norwich University, I took a course about the school’s history, one of the high-level seminars that you take in the field. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect (other than that it might be kind of boring), but I liked the instructor, and it turned out to be a really fascinating field of study. It also proved to be one of those courses that charts the direction of your interests and career. My final project was a study of the Norwich students who fought at Normandy during World War II, and it came with a neat opportunity: a trip to the battlefield along with some high-level alumni and donors. I was the youngest by decades, but got to talk extensively about the students whose footsteps we were literally following, both at school and on the battlefield.

Over the years since, I’ve done quite a bit of study in the topic: I researched Norwich students who fought at the Battle of the Bulge and during World War I, as well as a smattering of articles. The latest is now available in a new book, Citizens & Soldiers: The First 200 Years of Norwich. The school is coming up on its bicentennial next year, and to commemorate it, the school commissioned bestselling author Alex Kershaw (you know, the guy who wrote The Bedford Boys, The Few, The Longest Winter, The Liberator, and others) to write it. He’s on the level of Stephen Ambrose when it comes to WWII histories.

The book is a narrative and independent overview of Norwich’s history, and to flesh it out in places, the school brought in some freelancers to contribute some pieces. I got to write about the 2nd Armored Division, which I’d covered in some of my work.

The book isn’t widely for sale just yet: if you’re in Vermont, you can stop by the school to pick up a copy (either a $1000 Commemorative Edition, or an $85 edition), but it’ll apparently hit their online store at some point in the near future, and they spoke a bit about plans for an eBook or paperback edition for students at some point in the future.

I haven’t read this yet — it’s a big book — but I’ve spoke with Alex about his work on it, and heard him speak about it: an epic story of a school that had a real footprint in the history of our nation, and even if you’re not an alum, it should make for a really interesting read. I’m happy to have a small part in it.

General Barksdale Hamlett

File:Barksdale Hamlett.jpg

In 1965, Major General Ernest Harmon retired as the 19th President of Norwich University, after a 15 year career in higher education, presiding over one of the largest growth periods in the University's History during the post-war boom that brought the University a number of new facilities and buildings that still stand today. In his place, General Barksdale Hamlett became the 20th president of the University, after a career that spanned three decades in the United States Army, where he attained the rank of a four-star general, during a volatile time in United States, where he presided over the Cuban Missile Crisis and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

Following a major heart attack that nearly killed him in 1964, Hamlett retired from the military, and in 1965, took the reins of Norwich University (1). In the aftermath of Harmon's rapid growth of the school, there were numerous issues that caused problems for the school. A declining enrollment in the Corps of Cadets was beginning to impact the school's budget, while Hamlett's plans to double the school's endowment from $3.5 million to $6 million dollars was slow as alumni to the school failed to help as much as possible. Just a week after taking his office in July of 1965, Hamlett noted that alumni help for the school's future was "Disappointing", noting that only 32.5% of the alumni base had actually contributed to the $500,000 raised at that point.(2)

In light of the financial issues that the school faced, Hamlett began to create the groundwork that would eventually spell out massive changes to the school. In January, after only six months on the job, he issued long range plans for the school to begin to look into integrating a non-military component and student population to the school, noting: "I told the trustees flat out that if you can't accept change, you better prepare yourself for bankruptcy,"(3) Additionally, he moved to acquire the Vermont Campus College (which occurred in 1972), a civilian school located in Montpelier, Vermont, with a predominantly female population.(4) In one administration, the roots for the modern makeup of the school were planted, and it represented a fairly bold vision for the future of the University, with major changes to a largely traditional offering. At that point, Norwich was one of three schools that was still entirely military in nature.

Currently, Norwich University has a large student population of both military and civilian lifestyle students, although the relationship with Vermont College was dissolved in 2001, Additionally, shortly after this time, the school introduced women to the curriculum, two years after Hamlett stepped down, and two years before the federal service academies. Looking at the Hamlett administration, it's fairly clear that there are a certain number of parallels with the present state of the University.

With the 2008 collapse in global markets, Norwich, like numerous other schools, faced some budget problems, which in turn have pointed to solutions to deal with the University's future, but also the current problems. In 1966, the school's future was in serious doubt, and the University made several drastic changes to the makeup of the school that carry through to the present day: the introduction of civilians, acquiring Vermont College and women to the student body, which opened the school up to new markets and helped to increase the student body.

The current problems facing the school have brought some employee cuts, but a major change in the way the school does business, looking to increase student satisfaction and thus retention to retain students who might otherwise leave. With new dorms and buildings under construction, or recently completed, the school is on track for a good recovery, and with changes put into place to help keep the school functioning for years to come. With the 2019 bicentennial coming up, the future of the school is readily secured, but it does go to show, that while Norwich has faced significant problems in the past, the option to implement drastic changes, while keeping core values at the heart of the school, should remain for those in charge of the school's future.

Hamlett's implementations have remained at the school to this day, and have ultimately proved to be a strong addition to the Norwich experience available to students, who can choose between lifestyles, but also learn from the other side of the equation. With his introduction to the school, there was an 'Emphasis on academic enrichment'(5), something that likewise remains to this day, and despite fears that the school would lose its character, demonstrates the central core of the school's focus: educating practical citizens for the future.

1 - 'Hamlett Inagurated as 20th President', Burlington Free Press, October 26, 1965 2 - 'Norwich Alumni Help Called Disappointing', Burlington Free Press, July 1965 3 - 'Cadets No Longer Submit to Petty Rules; Top Military Schools Have to Ease Rules to Stay in Business', New York Times, May 31, 1972 4 - 'Non Military Students at Norwich?', Times Argus, January 25, 1966 5 - 'Hamlett Inagurated as 20th President', Burlington Free Press, October 26, 1965