Goodbye DADT, Hello ROTC

The death of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" signals the return of the signature military training program to elite universities that banned it, presidents promise.
December 21, 2010

Presidents of some of the nation's highest profile colleges and universities, where the Reserve Officers' Training Corps program has been barred for decades, said that the U.S. Senate's vote Saturday to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" will usher the return of the program to their campuses -- though the exact procedure remained unclear.

"This is an historic development for a nation dedicated to fulfilling its core principle of equal rights," Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, said in a statement following the vote this weekend to end the 17-year-old policy forcing gay and lesbian members of the military to hide their sexual orientation in order to continue serving. It is likely to be signed into law by President Obama on Wednesday.

"It also effectively ends what has been a vexing problem for higher education, including at Columbia -- given our desire to be open to our military, but not wanting to violate our own core principle against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation," continued Bollinger. "We now have the opportunity for a new era in the relationship between universities and our military services."

Though college bans on the ROTC date back to the unrest that roiled campuses (including, notably, Columbia) during the Vietnam War, the military's discrimination against gay people emerged as a key sticking point that blocked the program's return in the years since that war ended. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- the compromise measure put in place in 1993 that allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they hid their sexual orientation -- carried particular symbolic weight. The resurgence of ROTC on campuses has been championed by figures from across the political spectrum, with supporters saying it will benefit the military, colleges and students. Advocates have included Defense Secretary Robert Gates and, as a senator and presidential candidate, Barack Obama.

Drew Faust, president of Harvard University, issued a statement casting the Senate's vote over the weekend in historic terms. "It affirms American ideals of equal opportunity and underscores the importance of the right to military service as a fundamental dimension of citizenship," said Faust, an historian of the Civil War and the American South, who said previously that the end of the policy would clear the way for ROTC's return to Harvard. "It was no accident that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation not only guaranteed freedom to Black Americans but at the same time opened the Union Army to their participation. Because of today's action by the Senate, gay and lesbian Americans will now also have the right to pursue this honorable calling, and we as a nation will have the benefit of their service."

For all the rhetorical celebration, it remains unclear in many cases precisely how ROTC will return to the nation's campuses. Faust said in her statement that she was pleased that "more students will now have the opportunity to serve their country" while being somewhat vague about the way forward. "I look forward to pursuing discussions with military officials and others to achieve Harvard's full and formal recognition of ROTC," she said.

Bollinger said during an April visit to his campus from Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was a "crucial divide" keeping ROTC from returning. Before the program does return, it must be approved by the university senate, he said, adding, "There has to be faculty and student debate about this." Five years ago, the university's senate overwhelmingly rejected an effort to bring it back, with many faculty members citing anti-gay bias in the military as a reason to maintain the ban. Still, Bollinger predicted that the campus in general would prove to be a much more hospitable place to the military than it was more than four decades ago.

Columbia's Senate on Monday announced the creation of a "task force on military engagement" in light of the end of the military's policies barring openly gay people from serving. The committee plans to hold hearings and conduct a student survey on a possible return of ROTC.

Mullen, during the same visit to Columbia, also cautioned against expecting too much too soon in hoping for ROTC's return, and suggested that not every campus that wants a program will necessarily get one. “There are limits to how many we can actually create," he said. "We are a much smaller force than we were way back when. We can’t just snap our fingers and make it happen.”

Yale University, however, mapped a very clear path forward. President Richard C. Levin said his administration will be discussing the matter with faculty during the spring semester. He added that he had asked General Counsel Dorothy Robinson, Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer and Yale College Dean Mary Miller to consult with officials in Washington early in the new year to determine the military’s interest in establishing an ROTC unit at Yale. "We are very hopeful that these discussions will enable us to begin a new chapter in the long history of Yale’s support of the U.S. Armed Services," Levin said in a statement.

Such a clear map is not yet possible at Stanford University, where the decision rests with the faculty. In March, the faculty senate anticipated changes coming from Washington, and established a committee to look at the issue. Among its first contributors were Stanford professors David Kennedy, the historian, and William Perry, secretary of defense under President Clinton. The faculty will make the decision because it must evaluate the rigor of the military science curriculum that accompanies ROTC, said Lisa Lapin, a spokeswoman for Stanford. "'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was a hurdle, so this will probably be helpful," she said. "(But) it’s not the only consideration."

Officials at Brown University did not go as far as others in predicting a return of ROTC. Marisa Quinn, vice president of public affairs at Brown University, said via e-mail: "The repeal of Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell will likely stimulate additional conversation about ROTC on the Brown campus, a conversation that has occurred from time to time among the university's alumni, students, faculty and administrators. The university welcomes conversation on this and other important social and political questions." She added, however, that "the university's decision to phase out Air Force ROTC (1971) and Naval ROTC (1972) centered on academic issues, including whether ROTC units should have departmental status and whether courses offered by those units should carry academic credit. Those issues are matters for faculty discussion. Any academic issues raised by a potential return of ROTC instruction at Brown would require a vote of the faculty."

It is also worth noting that the ban of ROTC from campuses has not barred students from joining the program -- though it does make the prospect more difficult. Students can -- and do -- participate in ROTC through nearby host campuses, though the numbers are often small. Four Yale students participate in ROTC through the University of Connecticut. At Harvard, there are 19 such students, who do so through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Meanwhile, other elite institutions, such as Duke, Cornell and Princeton universities, have kept ROTC on campus without incident.

It will also be some time until the policy is formally eliminated, in practice, from the military. The Pentagon must certify that the groundwork has been laid for troops to be trained and taught to adapt to the change in policy. Obama, Gates and Mullen must write to Congress to assure its members that the new policy will not compromise troop readiness, cohesion, or recruitment and retention. A 60-day review will follow.


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