Not Marching in Step

September 15, 2011

The repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was expected to clear the way for the Reserve Officers' Training Corps to return to the campuses of elite universities that had barred the program. But Brown University isn't ready to enlist.

Like their counterparts at a number of elite universities, Brown professors voted in 1969 to remove ROTC from campus as anti-Vietnam War sentiments began to swell across the nation.

But after President Obama signed the repeal of the policy, Brown President Ruth Simmons in January called for a committee to review the expansion of ROTC at the university. Similar reviews at other universities in the last year have led to fairly strong recommendations to restore ROTC, which administrations have proceeded to carry out. Things are murkier at Brown.

The committee at Brown, made up of faculty, students and staff members, released its recommendations last week.

It reported that a majority, but not all members, recommended bringing Naval and Air Force ROTC back to Brown. Katherine Bergeron, committee chair and dean of the college, said that while the group’s main duty was fact-finding, this final recommendation did come down to a vote, with six members for a recommendation to bring Naval and Air Force ROTC back to campus and four against.

“We reported the split because in effect we found it analogous or reflective of the range of opinion on campus,” Bergeron, also a professor of musicology, said. “The idea was maximal engagement.”

As it stands, Brown has maintained an agreement with Providence College to provide Army ROTC services to Brown students, a relationship the committee recommended keeping. While many ROTC programs at other universities are counted for elective credit, the committee also recommended that ROTC should be considered an extracurricular activity and not require the university to deem instructors faculty members.

Simmons noted in an e-mail to students and faculty members last week that she will continue the dialogue with interested student groups and faculty members. Next month, she will give a final report on the ROTC expansion to the university’s governing board.

But until then, the committee’s tight vote seems to have reinvigorated the debate over a program that hasn’t had a presence on the campus in almost 40 years. “I think [the administration] should be concerned,” Steve Rabson, professor emeritus of Japanese literature, said. “I think if ROTC comes back to Brown it will be a lighting rod for protests. I have no doubt.”

Rabson, who has worked with student groups opposing ROTC expansion, said the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” isn’t going to repair all of the military’s problems. He said he opposes a ROTC expansion in any form, because it would signal the university’s support of training students for “tragically misguided military policies for intervention abroad.”

Julie Pittman, a Brown senior and member of the Coalition Against Special Privileges for the ROTC, said she was very frustrated with the committee’s “fairly indecisive” recommendation. She said the coalition met with committee members twice to discuss its main objections to ROTC.

“It seems absurd to me to bring it back in the midst of one of the most unpopular wars in our country’s history,” Pittman said. “In a lot of ways I think this is a largely symbolic struggle because realistically maybe a handful of students will join ROTC if it is expanded.”

She said she is concerned that if Brown’s administration moves forward with expanding ROTC it will serve as a “rubber stamp to everything [the military] is doing around the world.”

A big point of contention among those opposed to the expansion is the federal regulation barring transgender individuals from serving in the military. Rabson said Brown has a very robust anti-discrimination policy that includes protection for transgender people. To allow ROTC back would be tantamount to Brown violating its very own anti-discrimination policy, he said.

Bergeron said this issue weighed heavily on the committee, with some members viewing moving forward with ROTC on campus as a direct violation of Brown’s anti-discrimination policy. Others saw it as an opportunity for Brown graduates to promote a change in military culture.

Andrew Sia, who is a member of Brown Students for ROTC, said the 30- to 40-minute commute to Providence College made it impossible for him to join the program his freshman year. While the committee sided with reinstating Naval and Air Force ROTC, he said the narrow vote does not send a strong enough message.

“I feel like the report didn’t say much of anything at all,” Sia said. “It’s a way for the university to drag its heels and avoid making a decision on the issue.”

Sia said Brown’s slow-moving process gives a bad impression to the military and its veterans.

“Brown should listen to its alumni and its students and not let a vocal radical minority talk for the university as a whole,” he said.

Brown is the last Ivy League holdout on the ROTC expansion issue. Harvard, Yale and Columbia Universities all approved the reintroduction of similar programs with little controversy earlier this year. Others never kicked ROTC off campus.

Over several months, the Brown committee polled alumni and students, met with interested student groups and researched the ROTC policies of peer institutions. More than 1,400 students responded to a survey about the expansion, demonstrating a fairly even divide in opinion. About 30 percent of students voted that Brown should have less involvement with ROTC than it does now, while 41 percent voted for an increased ROTC presence on campus, according to the report. The remaining votes favor the status quo or slightly enhancing the program.

The alumni poll showed that of a little more than 1,000 respondents, about 77 percent were in favor of Brown expanding its ROTC program.

Jonathan Hillman, a 2009 graduate and chairman of Brown Alumni for ROTC, said the university has debated enough. It’s time to make a decision, he said. “Brown is just behind the curve right now,” Hillman, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, said. “All of its peers have taken action and it’s written a report.”

Hillman said the committee’s report is also contradictory. On one hand, it affirms the relationship with Providence College; on the other, it is somewhat uncertain about the merits of having ROTC on its own campus, he said.

“It’s sort of saying, 'It’s O.K., but not in my backyard,’ ” he said.

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