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Reunion Brings UMUC’s Academic Foreign Legion Back Together

Rebecca Foss
By Rebecca Foss
  • Faculty |
  • Current Students

For decades they had spanned the globe, hopping from country to country to provide quality higher education to American servicemembers seeking a college degree in combat zones and Cold War outposts.

From Iceland to Antarctica, from London to Okinawa, from the jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq to the mountains of Afghanistan and the civil war in Bosnia, these professors "had syllabus, will travel."

Recently, these retired swashbuckling academics returned to University of Maryland University College in Adelphi Nov. 9 to reunite with their colleagues, honor past president Ben Massey and hear UMUC's current president, Javier Miyares, tell them how important their work had been to building the university.

"That UMUC grew from a modest program in the University of Maryland School of Education to a global institution now poised to play a leadership role in the future of higher education was due to the incredible ingenuity, work and dedication of our overseas leadership, faculty and staff," Miyares said.

"UMUC was truly born overseas in our military installations," he said. "Your spirit of adventure and innovation shaped this university and laid the groundwork for the nimble, scalable operation that exists today and allows us to adapt and thrive."

Spirit of adventure was at the root of it all, many of the returning professors said. Sure, they could have gotten other teaching jobs at conventional universities. And yes, they could have made more money in all kinds of humdrum jobs.

But nothing, they said, compared to being a UMUC traveling professor who had the opportunity to teach highly motivated students serving in the United States military.

"At the personal level, I was and still am in love with faraway places with strange-sounding names," said Joe Arden, who joined the Far Eastern Division faculty in 1967 and taught for 20 terms in eight countries and only once remained in the same location for more than eight weeks.

"In my first year in the five eight-week terms, I taught chronologically, term one in Korea, term two in Vietnam, term three in Thailand, term four in northern Japan Misawa, and term five in Taiwan."

In 1968, he said, he was the only American traveling the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. And he went on to be director of both the European and Far Eastern divisions before retiring to Thailand.

"It allowed me to satisfy this wanderlust in a very fundamental way," he said. "I literally thought there must be some mistake. I thought I should have been paying Maryland rather than Maryland paying me."

But the job was valuable for more than the sense of adventure, Arden said.

"At the time, there was no other university overseas," he said. "We were the ballgame. You received an unusual sense of satisfaction from teaching because you were doing something that, without your presence, life would have been very different at that base."

For Paula Harbecke, the sense of adventure started on the night train from Frankfurt through communist East Germany, to arrive at daybreak in West Berlin for her first teaching assignment in 1980.

"I can recall indeed my very first time getting off the train with my suitcases," she said. "You're going to be here for at least the next eight weeks and you have to find a place to live."

Harbecke, who went on to run both the Asian and European divisions in her UMUC career, had the job of filling holes in teaching assignments with traveling UMUC professors. She would whisk professors from Iceland to Okinawa or set up a new program in Singapore after Mt. Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines and destroyed American bases there.

"I can remember after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo," she said, "Getting a call from a servicemember who was stationed at Clark Air Force Base, asking, are we going to have classes tonight?"

In the early 1990s with the advent of online education, she had the opportunity to start something unique – classes in Antarctica. The UMUC program in Christchurch, New Zealand created a class or two for a couple of military students who were supporting the research there.

"We just claimed the continent," she said proudly, with a wink. "The Asian division had added a whole new continent."

For Hugo Keesling, the sense of adventure started with his teaching assignment as an anti-war psychology professor at the Phan Rang Air Force Base in the middle of Vietnam.

"In my own mind, I was not going to Vietnam," he said. "I was going somewhere in the California desert where a war movie was being filmed. So all of the helicopters and all of the soldiers were just extras in a film. I was there, and I just happened to be teaching."

"That worked for about six weeks," he said. "Then on one Sunday morning we had a series of rockets come in, one near the trailer where I was staying. I finally realized this was not a game, this was not a movie. This was war. The incoming did not distinguish between military and civilians."

His UMUC career took him all over the world, he said, but his Vietnam experience had an indelible influence on his life. Now, more than 40 years later, he still hears from a couple of his students. And he devotes his life to the music of Vietnam as a producer, author and creator of more than 13 CDs.

"This started because I was in the Vietnam War," he said, "And I saw the extent that the music was an integral part of the experience."

President Massey himself started as a psychology professor sent to Germany at a moment's notice in 1960 to replace another faculty member. His early teaching assignments, each eight weeks long, took him all over Germany, France and England, even as the Cold War was heating up with the construction of the Berlin Wall.

"[The tension] didn't rub off on the classes," he said. The students had plenty of work to do during the daytime, so it was something of a release to come in the evening to a class in a subject matter that interested them."

But the highpoint of his career, he said, was the groundbreaking work UMUC did with online education.

"We developed one of the earliest online programs and developed the software program that we used for a number of years," he said. "We did programs in new degree levels. There was no existing master's program by a reputable university. We began the first one and later on doctoral programs."

That dedication to both the U.S. military and to innovative education developed during the Cold War has positioned UMUC for the challenges higher education faces today, Miyares said.

UMUC this year helped reverse a move by branches of the military to eliminate military tuition assistance as part of cost-cutting measures under sequestration, he said. And it won a new contract to provide onsite classes to the remaining U.S. forces in Europe.

Even as UMUC has drawn down its campuses around the world as the U.S. military has pulled back, he said, the university has used what it learned in distance and online education to maintain a strong presence in providing adult education in the U.S. and around the world.

Between 1990 and 2012, overseas enrollments decreased by half – from 72,000 to 36,000 – while stateside enrollments increased almost threefold, from 23,000 to 64,000, he said. With 93,000 students worldwide taking more than 260,000 classes, UMUC is the largest online public university in the U.S. today.

"Let that sink in," Miyares said. "The university you helped build has become the largest online public university in the country."