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Brown balks at rotc on campus

Falling (Partway) In Line
October 20, 2011

With “don’t ask, don’t tell” now a thing of the past, many expected Brown University to fall in line with its fellow Ivy League institutions, several of which reinstituted Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs on their campuses this year.

Wednesday, Brown’s president recommended bolstering student participation in ROTC -- just not on Brown’s campus.

In the statement, Ruth Simmons, Brown’s departing president, agreed with a committee’s findings last month to the campus at large.  The committee, made up of faculty and staff members and students, said in its 29-page report that the members had voted, by a slim margin, to recommend bringing Naval and Air Force ROTC back to Brown in some capacity. Brown currently maintains a crosstown agreement with Providence College to provide Army ROTC services to Brown students. Both the committee and Simmons recommend upholding this arrangement.

In her statement, Simmons said she had weighed all the issues brought up by professors and students -- remaining discriminatory policies in the military and opposition to recent wars -- and voiced her support for exploring participation in cross-institutional Naval and Air Force ROTC programs housed at other campuses nearby.

“The civil rights movement was an object lesson in the benefit of confronting discrimination by insistent involvement and purposeful and ethical engagement with opponents of fairness and equality,” Simmons wrote. “For the most part, women and minorities have gained greater equality and advancement by engaging discriminatory institutions, casting light on unfair practices, and steadfastly insisting on change. One could certainly argue that engaging with the military, rather than isolating it, would be a valid approach to ending forms of discrimination. ”

Brown began the ROTC discussion in January, when Simmons called for a committee to review the programs' expansion, given President Obama’s signature on legislation repealing the Pentagon's “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay service members in the military. ROTC has been absent from many elite colleges for decades, however. Like many of their counterparts, Brown professors voted in 1969 to remove ROTC from campus as anti-Vietnam War sentiments swelled across the nation.

In the past year, similar reviews at other universities have led to fairly strong recommendations to restore ROTC, which administrations have proceeded to carry out.

Now Brown is the last institution standing, and it has some ROTC advocates at other elite institutions calling the university out for its hesitancy.

Tom Opladen, co-founder of the Yale Veterans Association, said he has been very proud of his alma mater for acting to restore its ROTC programs. Naval and Air Force ROTC will return to campus next year, he said.

“It depends on whether you want to be a leader or a follower,” said Opladen, a 1966 graduate of Yale and Naval ROTC member. “I would applaud any quality institution that wanted to be a leader in this segment and it would be obvious who those are.”

He continued. “Do I criticize the people who want to be followers? Well, the world needs some followers, too. Maybe they can send some students to Yale.”

Michael Segal, the coordinator for Advocates for ROTC, said Brown may very well be taking this stance, in part, because the Navy and Air Force may not have any interest in starting programs at Brown given the university's flagging participation in the Army program at Providence College. Only one or two Brown students are participating in the Army ROTC program every year, he said. Brown doesn't have the "critical mass" it may require to host robust ROTC programs at its own campus, Segal said.

Jonathan Hillman, a 2009 graduate and chairman of Brown Alumni for ROTC, said the potential arrangement places an unfair burden on those students who might be interested in ROTC. He said Simmons had missed an opportunity.

“Essentially some people involved in this process have been very concerned that Brown would be seen as a follower if it went ahead and changed its policies like all Ivy League institutions have done since last December,” he said. “But while they were busy being worried about being a follower, they missed a chance to be a leader.”

One of the big factors fueling the debate was the federal regulation barring transgender individuals from participating in the military. This regulation flies in the face of Brown’s anti-discrimination code, members of the Coalition Against Special Privileges for ROTC at Brown have said. Any further expansion of ROTC at Brown is the wrong move, they say, and this recommendation from Simmons is disappointing.

“I find it reprehensible that President Simmons is willing to overlook the rights of the transgender community simply because it is less prominent and more vulnerable than the gay community,” said Meredith Epstein, a Brown senior and member of the coalition. “This debate is not about numbers. It is about upholding the rights of a minority population and the values of equality and non-discrimination that Brown prides itself on.”

Epstein said more than 500 people have signed a petition asking the administration to prevent the expansion of ROTC, and the group hosted a rally last month that brought out about 100 supporters.

“I think we should set an example and really stick by our commitment to upholding transgender rights and nondiscrimination,” she said.

But Hillman said Brown should uphold its nondiscrimination policy by being engaged in the discussion within the military. 

“I hope people who are advocating for this continue to fight for transgender rights, but they could have been doing that all along,” he said. “I think you get much more leverage with engagement. The idea that that issue is owned by people who are against ROTC isn’t true.   

The ultimate decision rests with Brown’s governing board, which convenes this weekend and is expected to discuss the committee’s and Simmons’ recommendations.

 

 

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