When the federal government repealed the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy last year, it seemed to remove the chief obstacle keeping the Reserve Officers' Training Corps program from returning to many elite universities. But the debate on ROTC's return has been bumpy and the result not a foregone conclusion, reinforcing criticism that higher education remains inhospitable to the military.
The most public, and seemingly fractious, debate has been unfolding at Columbia University, where a decorated Iraq War veteran and Columbia student was reportedly heckled during the second of three public hearings about the potential return of ROTC. The incident has occasioned a mix of reactions on campus, ranging from dismay and worry to befuddlement and a belief that the controversy has been trumped up in news media accounts from such outlets as The New York Post (some have started referring to the incident as "Hecklegate").
Anthony Maschek, a student at Columbia, introduced himself as a nine-year Army veteran of the Iraq War who was shot nine times during his three deployments. "If you want to villainize the military, you’re looking at it in the face right now,” he said, before acknowledging that many of the anti-military signs being held aloft by audience members expressed arguments that had some degree of merit (though not, he said, in the context of ROTC).
The contested portion of his remarks comes after that (and readers may judge for themselves after listening to this audio file of the session). “It doesn’t matter how you feel about war. It doesn’t matter how you feel about fighting,” he said. “Other parts of the world are plotting to kill you right now when you go to bed.” Audience laughter -- apparently derisive -- followed. "It’s not a joke," said Maschek.
Some reports have said that those in the audience called him a racist. "These people are trying to kill you," said Maschek. "They hate America. They hate you." A voice from the audience can be heard saying his remarks are offensive. The moderator quieted the audience so Maschek could finish, and said that no one who was speaking should feel threatened. As Maschek left, he was greeted by applause. In a statement he released Monday on a blog of the Columbia Spectator, he said, "Comments by a small number of individuals at the town hall meeting have not changed my positive experiences at Columbia."
Beyond the Columbia incident, the larger question of whether campuses will reestablish ROTC programs gained urgency late last year after Congress passed and President Obama signed a law that would lead to the formal elimination of the 17-year-old policy that forces gay and lesbian members of the military to hide their sexual orientation in order to serve.
Many presidents of elite institutions hailed the decision to end "don't ask, don't tell" as signaling the resumption of ROTC on their campuses. Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia's president, said the move effectively resolved a tension that had vexed many in higher education: on the one hand they wanted to be open to the military, but on the other they did not want to violate their institutions' own anti-discrimination policies protecting sexual orientation. "We now have the opportunity for a new era in the relationship between universities and our military services," Bollinger said in a statement at the time.
At Columbia, the 108-member University Senate asked a Task Force on Military Engagement to canvass campus opinion in person, through the hearings, and online, through an eight-question survey that will conclude tonight. The task force, whose members criticized the interruption of Maschek's comments as "antithetical to the notions of free speech and dialogue that the Columbia community holds dear," will report to the senate and convey the results of the online poll on March 4. The senate, whose members include administrators, faculty and students, will render a decision in April.
Columbia has not been alone in sorting through the ROTC question. Stanford University's Faculty Senate charged a committee with exploring the logistical, financial and pedagogical implications of expanding its relationship with ROTC, and detailing possible options for the faculty to vote on. Its report is due in the middle of May, said Ewart Thomas, chair of the committee and professor of psychology.
For other institutions, like Harvard University, the way forward has not been clearly articulated beyond a commitment to continuing to engage in a conversation with military leaders (though President Drew Faust has said the end of "don't ask, don't tell" would enable Harvard to "regularize our relationship" with the military).
But Columbia's process of dealing with the ROTC question has been one of the most public -- and publicized. Students watching from other campuses have lauded the process at Columbia for its transparency, though opponents of ROTC at Columbia have said the eventual shape of an ROTC program remains too undefined, and allege that the process has been opaque and heavily stacked in favor of restoring the program. The process was also criticized by The Daily News as a "popularity contest that betrays fundamental tenets of academic freedom."
At Columbia, and elsewhere, other arguments against ROTC have gained increased visibility since the demise of "don't ask, don't tell" became likely. It is impossible to tell until the results of the vote are reported in March just how mainstream or widely shared such dissent is on Columbia's campus, though advocates for both sides are predicting victory. A 2008 student referendum, before the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," revealed narrowly split opinion, with 49 percent of undergraduates endorsing ROTC's restoration.
But those on the pro-ROTC side say the campus climate has shifted in recent years. Marco Reininger, a veteran and political science major at Columbia, wrote on The Huffington Post that, despite what he called the childish catcalls that greeted Maschek, the institution as a whole is neither as elitist nor as condescending as the media firestorm suggests. "The overwhelming sentiment I encounter from students and faculty is that having veterans on campus makes Columbia a richer place," he wrote. And, veterans say, when Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited campus last year, or on Veterans Day, when students and cadets raised the American flag, the events proceeded without any discernible anti-military activity.
Opponents generally fall into two camps -- one opposing ROTC because of whom it excludes, the other because of what the military does (a third line of criticism arises from faculty concerns over the academic quality of ROTC programs). At Columbia, these opponents look with hope to the last vote, in 2005, of the University Senate, when that body opted overwhelmingly to continue barring ROTC from campus. But some on this side also acknowledge that the climate has, in fact, changed.
"I believe 'don't ask, don't tell' was the main polarizing issue," said Daniela Garcia, a senior who opposed ROTC then and now. "The anti-war argument was pushed to the side." But that argument -- which focuses on a disdain for militarism in general and faults the service branches for what opponents see as aggressive recruiting of the poor -- is one that she and others want to resurrect.
"It's about what the military does as a whole," said Garcia. "The structured violence of the military is not compatible with educational institutions." A coalition of student groups -- primarily Lucha, an immigrants' and workers' rights organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, and the International Socialist Organization -- has emerged.
The other faction argues that bringing ROTC back to campuses would still violate nondiscrimination policies because the military continues to prevent transgender people from serving. "At the end of the day, if one person is discriminated against, we have a problem," said Sean Udell, president of Columbia's senior class and of the university's Queer Alliance. It would also mean that transgender students would be barred from taking ROTC classes, he added. "That’s an odd thing for a student to have to feel," he said. "Because of who they are, they can’t join certain classes. That’s humiliating and embarrassing and goes against the ideals of Columbia."
But others argue that it may not be possible, or even advisable, for military and university policies to be identical. While a university may bar discrimination against noncitizens and people with disabilities, the military may see doing so as being in its best interests, wrote Michael Segal, a Columbia alumnus whose e-mailed opinion on the matter has been posted with many others on the task force's website.
Still others see the latest critiques of ROTC as proof that elite universities are unalterably hostile to the presence of the military on their campuses, and that "don't ask, don't tell" served as a convenient excuse for keeping the military away. "If there were any doubts that a cultural rift exists between civilians and veterans, a number of students at Columbia have confirmed what has been known to many of us," Alex Horton wrote on a blog maintained by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "A lack of interaction with active duty members and veterans has bred ignorance, mistrust, and fear that must be reversed if vets are going to succeed after their service."
Many observers, such as Allan Silver, an emeritus professor of sociology at Columbia, have argued that the continued absence of ROTC on campuses is only worsening the widening gulf between those of elite status and those who serve in the military. "It is a civic scandal that those with higher prospects in the society and economy are egregiously underrepresented in military service. This damages the republic because it weakens the ties that ought to bind citizens," he wrote in an e-mail posted on the task force's website.
Silver, who said in his message that he opposed the war in Iraq and once risked prosecution for helping students avoid the draft during the Vietnam era, also wrote that supporting the return of ROTC to campuses was not the same thing as endorsing war or military policies. "Students’ great distance from those in military service, or preparing for it, diminishes preparation for citizenship," he wrote. "It is desirable that officers be educated in settings where policies and wars are more likely to be challenged."
Jose Robledo, a Columbia junior, member of the University Senate, and veteran who participates in ROTC at Fordham University, said the question of transgender soldiers would eventually be resolved, just as military policy eventually adapted to include African Americans, women, and gays and lesbians. But Robledo added that this process of evolution should work in both directions, with Columbia becoming more tolerant of the military.
"The military has generally changed as society has changed," he said. "If society has been changing, there’s no reason that Columbia shouldn’t change with it."
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