Not Everyone Is AWOL

Defense secretary's speech renews debate about ROTC at top universities, but contrary to widespread belief, units continue to thrive at some Ivies and liberal-leaning publics.
October 8, 2010

Military service, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week in a speech at Duke University, “has become something for other people to do.” And nowhere, he implied, has that attitude become quite as acute as it is at elite colleges.

“Over the past generation many commentators have lamented the absence of ROTC from the Ivy League and other selective universities,” he said. “Institutions that used to send hundreds of graduates into the armed forces … now struggle to commission a handful of officers every year.”

Gates praised Duke, with Army, Navy and Air Force Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs on its campus, as “a notable and admirable exception” to the rule that the U.S. military is not the place for the country’s elite. Conservatives have leaped to back Gates's criticism of elite institutions that don't have ROTC units, but some elite institutions do have them. Cornell and Princeton Universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are among the top-ranked institutions with ROTC programs that operate without incident. Leading public institutions including the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, all with histories of protests and activism, continue to offer ROTC to their students.

Since the height of the Vietnam War, some Ivies and many other top colleges have kept ROTC off their campuses, exacerbating the divide, Gates said, between those who seriously consider military service and those who dismiss it. “[W]hatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the wars remain an abstraction, a distant and unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally.” Opposition to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has been used by administrators at Harvard and Stanford Universities, among other institutions where policies ban anti-gay bias, to explain the decision to keep ROTC off campus.

Lt. Col. Peter Oertel, commander of Duke's Air Force ROTC unit, said Gates’s speech rang true to some extent. “There is general support for the military,” and a contingent of dozens of ROTC students, but not overwhelming support, he said. “People are accepting, but don’t go one way or another, this is another diversity issue for a lot of them and they respect us.”

“We are not looked down on, we are not promoted,” is how Lt. Col. John R. Stark described the treatment by students and administrators of Tiger Battalion, the Army ROTC group at Princeton. According to Army data, there are 22 Princeton student cadets in the unit. Stark describes them as “a very dedicated core that will always be there to serve the country.”

Nonetheless, he said, most Princeton students take the “something for other people” stance that Gates described in his speech. “I don't think most of the students on the campus notice us or pay all that much attention to Iraq the military. They’re generally assuming military service is for somebody else.”

Princeton students are interested in the military’s conflicts, but “they’re grand strategists, not tacticians,” Stark said, more interested in studying war from a public policy and international affairs perspective than in preparing themselves to engage in battle.

The same is true at many other elite institutions. At colleges that don’t have their own units, there are varying – but still small – levels of participation. Harvard sends a handful of students across Cambridge to the Air Force, Army and Navy units at MIT. Students at Yale University have the option of driving 60 miles to the University of Connecticut for ROTC, not particularly attractive. Stanford University students have the option of going to Santa Clara University for Army ROTC, but none do.

Army ROTC Enrollments at Selected Campuses

University Cadets
Cornell University 34
Duke University 27
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 13
Princeton University 22
University of California-Berkeley 15
University of Michigan 64
University of Virginia 82

In a speech at Columbia University in September 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama backed the reintroduction of ROTC onto campuses that banned the program during the Vietnam War. “The notion that young people here at Columbia, or anywhere, in any university, aren’t offered the choice, the option of participating in military service, I think is a mistake,” he said. Columbia debated the return of ROTC in 2005, only to have a measure rejected by a large margin in a vote by the university's senate.

At Duke last week, Gates, who spent four years as president of Texas A&M University before being appointed to his cabinet post by President George W. Bush in 2006, embraced the notion that ROTC might return to elite institutions. “I am encouraged that several other comparable universities – with the urging of some of their most prominent alumni, including the president of the United States – are at least reconsidering their position on military recruiting and officer training – a situation that has been neither good for the academy or the country,” he said.

Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust said last month that she wanted to "regularize our relationship" with the military should "don't ask, don't tell" be repealed. In March, Stanford established a committee to study the possible return of ROTC to the campus.

At the University of Michigan, said Lt. Col. Wayne Doyle, operations officer for the Army ROTC there, “the vast majority of people I come across really appreciate what we do” and accept – if not embrace – the group’s presence on campus. “No one’s protesting us. There are people everywhere who don’t like war, but we don’t have any problems here.”

According to official Army ROTC enrollment statistics, there are 64 cadets at Michigan. The Navy and Air Force groups there are slightly larger, Doyle said, in all totaling about 300 students. While a small number on a campus with 25,000 undergraduates, the participation rate is about the same as for the nation as a whole, where fewer than 1 percent of the population is in the armed forces.

The students in all of Michigan’s ROTC programs, Doyle stressed, “don’t feel like they’re outcasts because they’re in ROTC.” Many are active in other student groups and “feel as much a part of U. of M. as anyone else here.”

ROTC Participation at Universities That Keep ROTC Away From Campus

Institution Host for Program Cadets
Brown University Providence College 1
Dartmouth College Norwich University 8
Harvard University Massachusetts Institute of Technology 7
Stanford University Santa Clara University 0
University of Chicago University of Illinois at Chicago 3
University of Pennsylvania Drexel University 3
Yale University University of Connecticut 0

The same is true at Cornell, said Second Lieut. Carolyn Richley, who graduated from the university’s Army ROTC Excelsior Battalion in May. While she was an active and engaged member of the battalion for all four years as an undergraduate, Richley was also in a sorority and involved in other campus activities. “The biggest challenge for me wasn’t about being misunderstood or treated differently because I was in ROTC,” she said, “it was time management, because I was always doing a lot of different things.”

Richley said although “the stereotypes of ROTC and a sorority don’t really go together,” there were a handful of students involved in both groups during her time at Cornell. “During rush, some girls were like, ‘ohhh, you’re doing that – that’s weird’ but most were really accepting of it and respected my choice,” she said. “Especially in the sorority I ended up joining, most girls were really open-minded.”

For two years, she lived in her sorority’s house and the only complications came with scheduling. “Sometimes when people wanted to go out on a Thursday night it was kind of hard, since I’d need to wake up at 5:30 the next morning, but other than that, it wasn’t difficult.” Richley majored in civil engineering and is spending two months this fall at Cornell helping with recruitment efforts before heading to training for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Capt. Lisa Dwyer, scholarship and enrollment officer at Excelsior Battalion, said she is irritated by media coverage of ROTC that paints the Ivy League and elite institutions as unwelcoming to the military even as Cornell supports not just Army ROTC, but also Air Force and Navy units. This fall, according to Army data, there are 34 Cornell students registered as cadets.

Because of Cornell’s status as a land grant institution, ROTC continued to exist there during the Vietnam War, even as protests pushed it off the campuses of the other seven Ivies. “Cornell has a history of supporting military training efforts – teaching military tactics is part of the charter – and that’s the attitude here,” Dwyer said.

The only other Ivy with an active Army ROTC unit is Princeton, where protesters pushed ROTC off campus during Vietnam. While Air Force and Navy units never returned, Army ROTC did, after a brief hiatus, in 1972. Since then, faculty and administrators have largely been supportive of the unit. “The university wants ROTC to have a home here, but there’s not really a champion,” said Stark, who in addition to his duties leading Tiger Battalion is also a lecturer in Princeton’s history department, this fall teaching an upper-level undergraduate seminar called “The American Military Experience.” “They’re not really going to publicize or celebrate military service.”

Nonetheless, he said, Princeton is more attractive for ROTC than most of its peer institutions. “In the Ivies, if you want to do Army ROTC, you go to Princeton or Cornell,” he said, “or maybe Harvard where you can go to MIT, but I don’t think there’s a sense of being quite as welcome.”


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