It's lunchtime at Norwich University, and the temporary campus cafeteria is bustling with lean, athletic-looking youths. Nearly all the men sport fresh crew cuts, while the women wear their hair pulled back in tight buns. Both women and men are dressed in sneakers and gray T-shirts tucked into maroon shorts. The military feel is no accident -- these are the upperclassmen in the "Corps of Cadets," Norwich's on-campus military company.
At a time when the United States is waging bloody and controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in a state where hawkish sentiments are in the minority, the country's only private military college is, by all measures, thriving. Enrollment is up, academic programs are expanding and major construction projects are transforming the face of the Northfield campus.
The makeshift mess hall -- a long, low-ceilinged, windowless room in the basement of the Engineering, Math and Science Complex -- is evidence of this growth. The room is a temporary fix, until the massive hole in the ground outside the front door morphs into the new, $25 million Wise Campus Center. The three-story, 71,420-square-foot facility will eventually house an impressive new dining room, lounge, café, office space, conference rooms, theater and state-of-the-art audiovisual center. When the facility opens sometime next summer, it will become the school's social hub.
Elsewhere on campus, workers are putting the finishing touches on the Sullivan Museum and History Center, a $6 million, 16,000-square-foot facility, which is slated to open on October 20. Also in the works is a $5 million athletic complex. All told, Norwich will spend about $100 million over the next five years -- a huge investment for any school, let alone a tiny university in central Vermont.
Driving this expansion is Richard Schneider. The Queens, New York, native has been the president of Norwich since 1992, making him one of the longest-serving university presidents in New England. A graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Schneider was initially seen as an unlikely choice to head up a military college that produces more U.S. Army officers than any school except West Point. But Schneider quickly silenced critics of his "Coastie" credentials by demonstrating a keen ability for growing the school's endowment, boosting its enrollment, and raising its academic standards and national reputation.
Consider some of Schneider's recent accomplishments: Norwich is now in its third fundraising campaign since his arrival. His previous goal of $25 million took him six years to accomplish -- and he exceeded it by $4 million. The current $55 million capital campaign is only in its third year, and already Schneider has raised $42 million, putting the drive two years ahead of schedule.
This fundraising effort is also Norwich's first attempt to raise money for something other than bricks and mortar. The lion's share of those funds -- $34 million -- will go towards academic improvements including studies abroad and new scholarships, degree programs and faculty positions. In the last year alone, Schneider has added 60 new full-time jobs at Norwich, nearly all of them high-paying faculty or staff positions. That's a major boon to the central Vermont economy.
Growth is also taking place in Norwich's student body, both among its military and civilian populations. When Schneider came aboard 14 years ago, Norwich had 780 students in the Corps of Cadets; today there are 1150. Back then the school had only 300 civilian students, all of whom commuted to campus from Vermont College in Montpelier, which Norwich owned until 1993. Today the university has 400 civilian students living on campus and another 400 who commute. Those numbers don't include the 1200 or so online graduate students, all of whom are in programs created during Schneider's tenure. He plans to add 100 more Corps students and 100 more civilians, all of whom will eventually live on campus. The school's master plan includes a proposed $45 million dormitory to house as many as 750 civilian students.
Clearly, Norwich is trying to appeal to more than just the country's future fighting force. These days, many of its degree programs seem more applicable to the civilian sector than to the military: journalism, business, education and architecture, to name a few. Moreover, Schneider has expressed a strong interest in giving its civilian students a "sense of place" on campus that is uniquely their own.
"Students are expecting more of their campuses than when you or I went to school," Schneider says. "Most people think we're all military, and that's our predominant feel. But that's not all we are as a university."
Do such changes reflect a fundamental shift in Norwich's underlying military character? Schneider doesn't think so. The goal, he explains, is to make Norwich "look and feel more like America." Schneider recalls that when he attended the Coast Guard Academy, it was exclusively male and overwhelmingly white. "We couldn't have arguments in political science classes," he jokes. "We were all right-wing Republicans."
Today, Schneider understands that the U.S. military is far more heterogeneous, both racially and politically. And in a world where many of these soon-to-be military officers will be working side-by-side with people in the private sector, or have them as subordinates -- currently, about one-third of the Department of Defense is occupied by civilians -- Schneider says it's crucial that Norwich encourages more mutual understanding and respect between military and civilian personnel.
"I think that diversity is one of Norwich's strengths," Schneider says. "My goal is to make the students who are going into the service better officers. And the ones who are going to be civilians get a deeper appreciation for what it takes to be in the military."
During the post-Vietnam era, the widely unpopular war meant tough financial times and a severe drop in enrollment for Norwich. But the school's civilian outreach today is not being driven by recruitment woes. Quite the contrary. Like many of its nonmilitary counterparts, the university now rejects a higher percentage of its applicants than ever before. And, unlike all branches of the armed forces, Norwich hasn't seen a drop in the number of recruits who are interested in becoming military officers.
Nor is the school hurt, apparently, by its location in left-leaning Vermont. Only about 15 percent of its students come from the Green Mountain State, and those who do, Schneider notes, tend to be more politically and socially conservative than their counterparts at UVM, St. Michael's or Middlebury College.
Ultimately, he doesn't think the increase in civilian students living on campus will alter the school's culture. Civilian students will continue to take their hats off when the American flag is raised or lowered and call adults "sir" or "ma'am," regardless of whether they're speaking to someone in uniform. These traits, Schneider notes, aren't taught to the civilian students so much as acquired as a result of their being part of the culture on campus.
That said, since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, Schneider has noticed a change among all his students: a renewed seriousness -- in their studies, their workouts and their personal discipline. Last year, as many as 35 Norwich students were serving in Iraq or Afghanistan at any one time. Such realities can't help but create a sense of gravity on campus that is difficult to ignore.
"It's made the students who are here appreciate what they're doing, because they know full well that within six months of graduation, they'll be fighting, too," Schneider says. "They know it's real, and the civilian kids know it's real, too."