The Columbia University Senate voted overwhelmingly this month not to bring back the Reserve Officers Training Corps, which was removed from the campus in 1969 amid Vietnam War protests. Although some students and faculty members thought the vote might dull the debate for now, the university's Board of Trustees may have other ideas.
“I thought the Senate vote would be it,” said Michael Adler, a professor in the business school and Senate member. “But there has been some alumni unrest on this issue. Alumni have contacted the trustees.”
David Stern, chairman of the board, told The New York Sun that the ROTC issue would be at the top of the board’s list of topics to discuss when it convenes June 4. Earlier this month, after vigorous debate all year, the Senate voted 53-10, with five abstentions, not to return ROTC to campus.
And while the Senate, composed of students, alumni, faculty members and administrators, is meant to represent the voice of the university, its verdict is only a recommendation for the trustees. “Of course, the trustees have the final review,” said Mercy Davidson, Senate member and neurology researcher. “I do hope they consider the large majority vote in any discussions they have.”
At the Senate vote May 6, the issue of hottest debate was whether the military, with its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that violates Columbia’s nondiscrimination policy, should be allowed at the institution. The board has invited Senate representatives from both sides of the debate to answer questions on that, and a host of other issues. “There’s plenty of evidence why ROTC should not come back,” said Nathan Walker, a graduate student at Columbia’s Teachers College who will represent the anti-ROTC constituency. “Not only the supermajority of the Senate, but that 1,600 students and faculty members have signed a petition. I think [the trustees] have a clear idea of where the community is coming from.”
Walker also wants to make sure the board is clear about a vote earlier this year that showed two-thirds of Columbia undergraduates supporting the return of ROTC. He pointed out that double negatives in the measure confused many students.
In ROTC's corner at the board meeting will be James Applegate, astronomy professor and Senate member, who gave an interview in his graduation gown Wednesday. “I think it’s important that the maintenance of the armed forces is the collective work of all Americans,” Applegate said. “We may disagree with them from time to time,” he added, noting that even those who voted to return ROTC are not happy with “don’t ask, don’t tell.” “But we cannot abandon it, just like we don’t abandon the House of Representatives when we disagree. The best thing we can give future military leaders is a Columbia education.”
One concern that has been expressed in debates, and will be discussed among the trustees, is with the Solomon Amendment. A federal appeals court has found the amendment, which bars federal funds from going to colleges that don’t permit the military on campus, to be unconstitutional, and that ruling will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court in its term that begins in October.
Columbia does have relationships with Fordham University and Manhattan College that allow students to participate in ROTC at those institutions, and to receive ROTC scholarships, but not course credit. Nine Columbia students currently participate. Officers from the Manhattan and Fordham ROTC programs have already said it is unlikely that the Defense Department would seek to establish a program at Columbia, given the existing relationship, and the impression that student interest at Columbia is not high enough to warrant the resources.
Walker thought that Columbia’s ties to other ROTC programs would indemnify it even if the Solomon Amendment is deemed constitutional. “We, like 50 area schools, participate in regional ROTC programs,” he said. “Because of those, no school in this area has their own program.” A spokeswoman from the Department of Defense could not confirm whether Columbia would be in compliance should the Solomon Amendment be reinstated, saying “[The DOD] cannot offer comment on hypothetical situations.”
Senate members do not expect the trustees to take immediate action to return ROTC. “I would be stunned if the board reversed the Senate’s decision,” said Applegate, who in his nine years as a senator recalls only one instance when the trustees ruled opposite a large majority in the Senate.
The trustees are not required to make a decision at all at their meeting. All that is certain is that they have invited Walker and Applegate. “I was very proud of the even-handed debate in front of the senate,” said Rebecca Baldwin, a nursing graduate student who voted against ROTC. “I think it’s important that the trustees hear the debate, because it is being talked about on campus. I also hope they take into account the majority vote.”