No sooner had U.S. peacekeepers moved into war-torn Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s than classrooms followed, under the aegis of the University of Maryland University College, to educate American troops overseas.
As the Adelphi-based school prepares to follow the troops into other theaters of war, to Afghanistan or perhaps even Iraq, it will announce today that it has won a major Defense Department contract to continue educating U.S. military personnel, a mission it has had since the late 1940s.
The U.S. Army Contracting Command-Europe has awarded the contract, worth $350 million in tuition payments over 10 years, to educate men and women in the Army, Navy and Air Force at 87 locations across Europe and the Middle East.
"UMUC's history is of going where the troops are. We're ready to go," said Andrew P. Chambers, a retired three-star Army general who directs UMUC's European division, which includes the Middle East. "We have a lot of faculty members ready to go. They are true soldiers of fortune."
UMUC's contract, which is subject to biennial review by the Defense Department, gives it exclusive rights to provide courses leading to undergraduate liberal arts degrees and to three master's degrees: in computer information systems, counseling and public administration.
The institution, founded in 1947 to provide adult education, has been teaching U.S. military personnel in Europe since 1949 and in Asia since 1956. The Asian contract is also up for renewal, and an announcement is expected in February. Last year, 47,000 American service members and dependents were enrolled in overseas UMUC classes, with 27,000 of them under the European division.
"I can't predict the future of American foreign policy," said Gerald A. Heeger, UMUC president. "I can only say that we're committed to supporting the educational goals of our servicemen and women, and we intend to be wherever they need us to be."
Right now, said Chambers, that includes UMUC classrooms operating on U.S. bases in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. And if war breaks out with neighboring Iraq, or there's a need in Afghanistan, he added, "We are prepared to go if called in."
Anticipating such a request, Chambers said, five or six faculty members have "asked directly [to go]. I've asked another 10 or 12. They all said yes."
"We can have a cadre down there quickly, in Afghanistan or anyplace else they've deployed forces," he said.
While there may be an online component to the classes, they will be "primarily face-to-face education" in regular classrooms on military bases, Heeger said. The contract "has within it the expectation that online education will be provided as needed."
If UMUC is often the first in after the fighting stops, it is also sometimes there when the fighting ends. Heeger recalled a "famous picture of helicopters leaving from Vietnam" in 1975. What's not so well known about that dramatic departure, he said, is that "they were leaving from a Maryland education center. We've always been there."