Middle Ground on Military Recruiting?

February 10, 2005

The Marines are back at Middlebury College -- recruiting this week for the first time in at least a decade. But before they could recruit, they had to agree to explain the military's policies that discriminate against gay people, and to answer questions about those policies at an open campus forum.

The visit -- and the compromise Middlebury made with its own anti-bias policy -- comes at a time of increasing tension between colleges and the Pentagon over military recruiting. Many colleges bar any employer that discriminates against gay people (as well as various other groups), and see no reason why the military should get exceptional treatment. Congress disagrees -- and many Republicans regularly propose (and sometimes pass) legislation to punish colleges that bar recruiters. (The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to be asked to rule on a legal challenge to one such law in the next few months.)

Middlebury has actually had an exception to its policy for a number of years: Employers that practice discrimination may be allowed to recruit if they are willing to participate in a public forum. Until Tuesday, no employers had done so. But the Marines dutifully answered questions Tuesday night from a crowd of about 150 students and faculty members.

Almost every question was critical of the military's anti-gay policies, but people who attended said that the tone was civil throughout. The Marine recruiters said that they did not set policy, but could only try to explain it. Some students prefaced critical questions by noting their gratitude to the Marines for their service to the country.

Phil Benoit, a spokesman for Middlebury, said that the recruiting visit was the idea of several students who have joined a Marine program in which they spend summers in training so that they can receive a commission upon graduation. These students wanted others to know about the possibility, and invited the Marines to recruit. At that point, college officials invoked the policy requiring a public forum for groups that violate the college's anti-bias policies.

At least three times in the past, the college has invoked that policy when military recruiters attempted to schedule visits, and the recruiters abandoned their requests.

Capt. David Doucette told The Burlington Free Press that he wanted to make the trip to Middlebury because the liberal arts college is known for having students who are both smart and athletic. According to The Free Press, he told students that if they disagreed with the military's policies, they should urge Congress to modify them.

While the Marines were peacefully received, gay students and faculty members on the campus are upset that the college compromised on its anti-bias rules. A petition is being circulated to demand that the college strictly enforce its policies -- regardless of whether an employer is willing to appear at a forum.

Kevin Moss, chairman of the Russian department, said he would "prefer to keep people who discriminate off campus." Moss, who is active in the gay organization for Middlebury professors and other employees, said that the forum served an educational purpose in that many students didn't know much about "don't ask, don't tell."

But he noted that under Middlebury's policy, college officials retain the right to bar recruiters that discriminate -- even if they agree to a public forum. He said he hoped this week's activities would lead the college to reconsider its policies.

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