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1940s

In many ways the effects of the war that dominated this decade shaped the lineaments of the Graduate School. In 1940 the School had, thanks to the Rackham endowment, the exquisite building and impressive funds to support the pursuit of graduate education. By 1949 it exhibited the core features that distinguish the School at U-M: the Graduate School served national interests in the development of new knowledge; it was a primary incubator for new programs and fields of study; it provided a significant locus of financial support for student and faculty research.

mechanical engineering laboratory demonstration

A demonstration in the mechanical engineering laboratory is being given to these members of the engineering unit of the Army Specialized Training at the University.

Japanese language experts

Group of Japanese language experts trained at University of Michigan.

students in uniform

Professor in classroom of students in uniform pointing to map of Southeast Asia.

Dr. Wilma Donahue using Faximile visograph

Institute for Human Adjustment (renamed the Mary A. Rackham Institute on July 1, 2014); Dr. Wilma Donahue, March 1948, using Faximile visograph for experimental study.

The expected change was in enrollment. In September, 1940 the Burke-Wadsworth bill required compulsory military training of single men between 21 and 36. It allowed for deferment for enrolled college students until July 1, 1941 though students over 21 still had to register. Initially deferments were based on occupational shortages in fields such as chemistry and engineering. Of course, many students as well as faculty chose to enlist. After Pearl Harbor was attacked that December the decline in numbers accelerated. By 1943 graduate student enrollment had fallen to 633 from a total of 3,083 just four years prior.

The war had a marked effect on what was taught at U-M and who came here for instruction. Specialized training and research degree programs proliferated in engineering, chemistry, meteorology, foreign languages, civil administration, and other areas related to war needs. Much of the Rackham Building was turned over to student training in these fields and this took a heavy toll on the building itself.

The students and faculty who remained increasingly were involved in research supported by federal contracts. By April of 1942 the government awarded 31 research contracts to U-M, most of them classified. Though the advanced research in many fields was driven by the war, it resulted not only in effective weaponry but also in outcomes such as the influenza vaccine and a long-wearing fabric highly resistant to cold and water. The war precipitated a flood of funding from the federal government and corporate sector that would continue over the next two decades.

The end of the war did not bring a return to the status quo for the Graduate School. True, the graduate students returned as expected—3,125 that first year. And the building received extensive redecoration after the heavy use by military units. At the same time, the Graduate School building, and the people who worked there, continued to nurture the growth of new interdisciplinary projects. Here are a few examples. The Center for Japanese Studies was established in 1947 with funding from the Carnegie Foundation and Rackham, and initially was under the auspices of the Graduate School. The Regents established the Statistical Research Laboratory in 1947 under supervision of the Executive Board of the Graduate School and operations were housed in the Rackham Building. So, too, was the Survey Research Center, supported by government agencies and industries with a need to know public attitudes to both politics and services, and joined a year later by the Research Center for Group Dynamics.

In addition to becoming the focus of interdisciplinary endeavors, the Graduate School became responsible for oversight of funding that supported the rapidly expanding research efforts of both graduate students and faculty. Funding for these proliferating opportunities derived from a range of public and private sources. There were contracts with businesses and with the multiplying federal agencies; there were grants from foundations and endowments from families. The University’s Committee on Budget Administration recognized the need for centralized oversight and in 1947-48 determined that all budgets supporting research and fellowships should be administered through the Graduate School.