Columbia Says No, Still, to ROTC

The university's Senate rejects a proposal urging an end to the three-decade boycott of military reserve program for students.
May 9, 2005

The committee that spent months deciding whether to recommend whether Columbia University should allow the Reserve Officers Training Program to return to its campus had been deeply torn, but the university's Senate showed no such division on Friday, rejecting the idea by an overwhelming margin of nearly five to one.

ROTC, in which students participate in weekend and summer military training and commit to post-graduation service in the armed forces in return for full college scholarships, has been banned from Columbia's campus since the 1969, when many colleges (including five of Columbia's seven Ivy League peers) ended their programs to protest the Vietnam war (Two of the five have since restored them, leaving four Ivy institutions -- Cornell, Dartmouth, Pennsylvania and Princeton -- with ROTC and four without). Columbia students who are interested in ROTC have been able to participate in military reserve programs at Fordham University and Manhattan College; fewer than 10 current Columbia students are doing so.  

But momentum for the programs' return has been building in recent years on some campuses, including Columbia and Harvard University, especially in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Even so, the military's controversial policy of discriminating against openly gay servicemembers and political criticism of the war in Iraq has sustained deep-seated opposition against the armed forces generally and the potential return of ROTC in particular in other quarters.

Near the end of 2003, a group of students proposed that the university reestablish its ROTC program, with the goal of "allowing students greater accessibility to careers in the uniformed services and of further diversifying the matriculation pool of the University’s undergraduate schools." The advocates for ROTC noted that nearly two-thirds of about 1,000 Columbia students who participated in an April 2003 referendum supported the return of ROTC.

The University Senate appointed a special panel in March 2004 to study the potential return of ROTC, and the committee spent much of this academic year trying to answer that question, inviting input via e-mail, at town hall meetings, and at a contentious Senate meeting in April. 

Try as it might to reach a consensus, the 10-member task force of professors and students was split down right the middle on the question of whether ROTC should return now. In its thoughtful and highly detailed final report in advance of Friday's meeting, the committee noted near-unanimous agreement that ROTC should return to the campus if the military were to abandon its "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gay servicemembers, and most agreed that Columbia should work to allow more of its students to enroll in the programs at Fordham and Manhattan.

But on the central question -- whether ROTC should return "as soon as is practicable" -- the panel's 10 members split 5-5. Although they unanimously opposed the military's policy on gay people and agreed that it violated the university's nondiscrimination policy, they disagreed, ultimately, on whether that outweighed the arguments for the program.

Its co-chairs split, too. James H. Applegate, an astronomy professor, said the arguments against ROTC "come quickly and arise from our looking inward and seeing Columbia in isolation," while the arguments favoring ROTC "come more slowly and arise from our looking outward and seeing Columbia in its proper role in our country and the world." Returning ROTC to the campus, Applegate and other supporters argued, would broaden the "diversity of ideas, viewpoints and values" at Columbia, and involve the university "in educating America's military leaders" in the same way it educates leaders in other fields.

Applegate rejected arguments that continuing the ROTC boycott was the best way Columbia could pressure the military to change its "fundamentally wrong" policies. "You cannot affect change without engaging an issue," he said. "Universities are vital when they educate and irrelevant when they boycott."

He concluded: "Shunning the military is a choice that a private university is free to make. It is not a choice that Americans collectively are free to make. It is a choice that Columbia should not make."

Nathan C. Walker, the task force's other co-chair and a graduate student at Columbia's education and divinity schools, argued in its final report that the military's "invidious discrimination" against gay people clashed fundamentally with the university's closely held policy of nondiscrimination, and that that flaw alone significantly outweighed the program's value to the university, which he questioned since so few students partipate in nearby ROTC programs.

Walker also said that only Congress and the president or the U.S. Supreme Court could alter the military's policy, and that "the return of ROTC to campus will not reform the military's discriminatory practices."

Because it was so divided, the task force sent the resolution on whether to restore ROTC on to the University Senate without a recommendation either way. Given how divided the panel was, the Senate discussion was expected to be contentious, and many expected a close vote.

But with a crowd of sign-bearing student opponents looking on, the Senate rejected several attempts to table the resolution and others to amend it, including one that would have made ROTC's return contingent on the military agreeing to abide by the university's nondiscrimination policy. After two hours of at times passionate discussion, the vote was not close: 51 opposed the return of ROTC and 11 favored it, with 5 abstentions.


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