ROTC Debate Renewed

Remarks by presidential candidates draw attention to issue at Columbia and elsewhere, but whether anything will change remains to be seen.
September 17, 2008

When Sen. John McCain used an appearance at Columbia University last week to criticize the university for not allowing Reserve Officers Training Corps programs on campus, no one was shocked. But many people were surprised when Sen. Barack Obama was asked for his thoughts and he said that “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.”

Since those comments on Thursday, the issue of ROTC at Columbia (and a few of the other colleges that uninvited the military program in the '60s) has received heightened attention. But while more Columbia students are talking about the issue, and there may even be a student vote, the issue has become somewhat muddled.

Pro-ROTC students are frustrated by the suggestion that only Obama could get students interested in this issue, when in fact many were working on it for some time before his appearance. And some at the university are angry about the suggestions of the candidates -- and many columnists -- that ROTC students are barred from Columbia when the university does permit its students to participate in ROTC at other New York City campuses.

Columbia had ROTC on campus for decades, but booted the program during the Vietnam War, with many professors saying that it was inappropriate for the university to have such military ties. While the war in Iraq may not win much support at Columbia, that has not been the focus of debate in recent years. Supporters of bringing ROTC directly on campus have cited the need for students to make their own choices about participation, the values of national service, and the generous scholarships ROTC students receive. Opponents cite the military's discrimination against openly gay people -- a policy that directly contradicts the anti-bias policies at Columbia and many other universities.

At Columbia, the University Senate (which has students, professors and administrators) three years ago voted down a proposal to bring ROTC back. Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia, cited the bias issue in defending the Senate's decision. "I believe the men and women who serve our country in uniform deserve our utmost respect and support. I also believe they and all Americans deserve a military that does not discriminate invidiously against any individuals who volunteer to serve and sacrifice for our country," Bollinger wrote in a letter to The Wall Street Journal, which criticized the Senate's vote.

This year, some students have been pushing for a referendum on bringing ROTC back, and some of the press coverage of this in the wake of the McCain and Obama appearance has created the impression that this vote might bring ROTC back to campus. In fact the student vote would have no binding power -- and the university's policy remains unchanged.

In addition, many of the student leaders pushing for a referendum say they aren't necessarily backing the return of ROTC, but just want to let students voice their opinion on the matter. Rajat Roy, one of the students in the Senate, is backing a referendum because he was approached by an engineering student who wants to participate in Naval ROTC on campus. But while Roy has been involved with pushing for a vote, he declined to offer any opinion. If the Senate takes up the issue again, he said, he would use the student referendum as a guide. "I have to do what my constituency tells me," he said.

Roy noted that the push for a referendum predated the presidential candidates' visit to campus.

Some students pushing for a referendum, however, are strong advocates of bringing ROTC back. Austin Byrd is a junior who has already completed the program at the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School and will join the Marines after graduation. Byrd said that he would probably have sought to join Navy ROTC if Columbia had the option. Asked why he enrolled at a university very public about its lack of on-campus ROTC, Byrd said that he is an art history major and believes that Columbia's department and New York City's offerings made the university his top choice.

To Byrd, Columbia's current policy is hypocritical. "Columbia is an American university that benefits enormously from the protections of the United States military," yet the "privileged" students there want to keep the military out. He said that he finds many students "ignorant" about the military -- and he believes Obama's comments might change the way the conversation plays out.

"Most students here really do not care what McCain says, so I think Obama has done a service in that we'll be able to point to someone they respect" who wants ROTC back. Obama "could say anything on this campus and people would applaud," so his statement "opens room for a debate."

ROTC at Columbia and other top universities has become something of a rallying cry for conservative critics of academe, but also for others. It's not just The Wall Street Journal that is criticizing Columbia but also The Washington Post, which in an editorial after last week's candidate remarks said: "'Don't ask, don't tell' is a misguided policy. For the time being, though, it is the law of the land, and we see no sign that the Ivies' protest is having any impact on it. Meanwhile, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines defend all Americans, gay or straight. ROTC-free Ivy League institutions accept the financial aid that students earn for participating in ROTC elsewhere." (Actually only half of the Ivy League keeps ROTC off campus -- units are present at Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania.)

The editorial added that "among other benefits, the restoration of ROTC at the Ivies might help reconnect two important American subcultures -- elite academia and the military officer corps -- that have grown apart."

Besides Columbia, the Ivy institution that has been subject to the most scrutiny over ROTC is Harvard University. Like Columbia, Harvard does not have ROTC on campus, but permits students to participate nearby, in this case at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Harvard's former president, Lawrence H. Summers, made a point of speaking each year at the ROTC commissioning ceremony.

This past year was the first commissioning ceremony during Drew Faust's presidency -- and she won praise from ROTC advocates when it was announced that she would continue the tradition of appearing at the ceremony, but was then criticized by these supporters when word got out that she might criticize "don't ask, don't tell."

In her address, Faust ended up largely praising the ROTC students. “You have awakened at dawn while your roommates slept in,” she said. “You have jumped out of airplanes, challenged your bodies and your brains and become mentally and physically prepared for service. You have our respect for your choices, our admiration for your commitment, and our deep gratitude for your willingness to confront dangers on the nation’s behalf in the months and years to come.” As to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” her comments were brief and subtle: “The freedoms we enjoy depend vitally on the service you and your forebears have undertaken in our behalf. Indeed, I wish that there were more of you. I believe that every Harvard student should have the opportunity to serve in the military, as you do, and as those honored in the past have done.”

The Harvard approach -- of praising ROTC students while keeping their training off campus -- has support from many at the institution.

An editorial in The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, said that the military's anti-gay policy "is so inconsistent with our institution’s humanitarian principles ... that many members of the Harvard community correctly cite the discriminatory policy as the most compelling reason to continue prohibiting ROTC on Harvard’s campus." While ROTC students are "inconvenienced" by having to go to MIT, the editorial says, the university's policy of enforcing its anti-bias rule is an important part of a "stand against institutionalized intolerance for homosexuality."

One oddity of the debate over ROTC in the last week is that many of the articles have suggested that the tensions surface only in the Ivy League. Actually, the tensions tend to surface at places contemplating a change in ROTC status (adding it, for example) and similar issues come up in the discussions at many other campuses.

The year, for example, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County held a series of meetings on whether it should apply to host a ROTC unit on campus instead of having its students train elsewhere. As at other campuses, opposition came in large part from students and others who cited the military's anti-gay policies. One lesbian student was quoted in The Baltimore Sun as saying that adding a ROTC unit would make part of the campus a place "where I'm not welcome." Petitions were circulated against the ROTC idea. Proponents noted that having a ROTC unit on campus would add to the number of scholarships available to UMBC students.

After two public meetings, university administrators announced that UMBC would apply for the ROTC unit, and would also work to oppose the military's discriminatory policies. "It is our intent to continue expressing strong concern about this policy because we, as a campus, oppose discrimination against any group," said a letter to the campus from President Freeman Hrabowski and Provost Art Johnson.

UMBC's application is pending.


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