'Arms and the University'

New book examines the decline of ROTC after the Vietnam War and its recent return to America's elite campuses.

April 2, 2012

Arguing the Reserve Officers' Training Corps provides a valuable civic education to both cadets and other students, Donald Alexander Downs and Ilia Murtazashvili explore the historical role of the military in higher education and how that relationship shifted both in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

In their new book, Arms and the University: Military Presence and the Civic Education of Non-Military Students (Cambridge University Press), Downs and Murtazashvili look at the status of ROTC on both elite private and land-grant campuses. They find much greater involvement and support at public institutions in the Midwest and South. Some Ivy League universities and others had banned ROTC after Vietnam. In recent years, many of those colleges justified the ban because of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which barred gays from serving openly until its 2010 repeal. Now ROTC programs are re-emerging at universities such as Harvard and Columbia, among others, that were leading suppliers of well-educated officers and military research in the World Wars but had been largely estranged from the military in the decades since Vietnam.

The authors argue that having future officers on campus -- ROTC cadets are commissioned upon graduation -- creates a lasting connection between academe and higher education while also instilling values of citizenship among non-ROTC students. By taking classes with cadets or perhaps living on the same dorm floor as them, the authors say, non-military students gain respect for the sacrifices of their classmates.

Downs, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Murtazashvili, a visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh, agreed to answer a few questions from Inside Higher Ed. 

Q: Much of your book focuses on the removal and recent renaissance of ROTC programs at Ivy League universities, even though enrollment in most of those programs remains low. Is having an ROTC presence on elite campuses a strategic necessity, or more a symbolic measure?

Downs:  It has both, and they overlap. Strategically, having a base in these institutions expands the range of officer recruitment, however modestly, especially for the best educated undergraduates. It is always good for the military to have the best-educated officers in the pool of officers. Such presence also gives the military more contact with institutions that turn out many leaders in policy and finance, which can help the military in its political relationships down the line. (This has always been one of the reasons the military has supported ROTC: Its outreach to future national leaders who influence military budgets and policy.)

The presence of ROTC in such institutions also helps to lessen the gap that exists between the military and civil society, which is most acute between the military and elites areas of higher education.

Q:  In outlining the relationship between universities and the military, you focus on the generally cooperative spirit of the pre-Vietnam era and the sense of mistrust that has prevailed since. It’s been decades since America left Vietnam – indeed, most parents of today’s students weren’t in college then – and yet tensions remain. Why is this?

Murtazashvili: While many students or even their parents may not have participated in the struggle against military presence in universities, many administrators and faculty are still around who were there, so to speak.  Many people we talked to expressed strong preferences about the military on campus. One former university administrator, upon hearing about the subject of the book, said, “This is a university, not a military training ground!”  To understand why opposition persists, even though there is generational change in the student body, it helps us to think about universities from an organizational and institutional perspective.  Once opposition to military presence became institutionalized in a university, it is hard to change since there is often very little and slow turnover in an organization. This organizational persistence helps us understand why opposition to a reasonable degree of military presence has proven hard to dislodge even when students seem more supportive of something like an ROTC detachment.

Q:  In addition to looking at Ivy League colleges, you examine the ROTC culture at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. What does the sizable ROTC presence at Wisconsin offer students and faculty not involved in the program? What’s the payoff for the country?

Downs: ROTC has presence at Madison, though it is not overwhelming due to the size of the campus. Our survey of non-ROTC students showed that a meaningful minority of students were influenced by being exposed to ROTC cadets in class, as roommates, and/or in social interaction. Of this group, over three-fourths had positive experiences. The first payoff is for those who take actual ROTC courses open to non-cadets, as they gain knowledge about the military, policy and strategy they could not gain from other courses and they gain knowledge and perspective by being around military personnel.  Others benefited by being exposed to ROTC cadets in class. We report examples of how cadets provided different perspectives on policy and history in non-ROTC classes. In one class, for example, a cadet corrected the views of students who misunderstood "just war" theory, which the cadet had learned from ROTC. In another class, a veteran informed students how difficult it is to use deadly force. The students had thought it would be easy to exercise self defense, but the veteran revealed that this is not the case based on his own personal experience in war in Iraq, and that most human beings are very reluctant to resort to violence even when it is called for. Hence the need for appropriate training

Q: What should an administrator at an institution with an established ROTC corps learn from your book?

Murtazashvili: While the conventional view of ROTC presence stresses the importance of placing the university in the military (the idea is to make better officers and soldiers), we showed that the university also benefits from military presence.  My recommendation would be to figure out new ways to bring non-military students closer to ROTC and veterans groups.  For example, many universities have leadership studies programs that currently do not take advantage of ROTC programs. In addition, building bridges for non-military students to take ROTC courses would help. And the university can also spend more time establishing opportunities for non-military students to take ROTC courses that have more general appeal.  It would also be helpful to do more to tie together physical presence of the military, which includes ROTC and veterans group, with intellectual inquiry into war, which includes security studies and military history.  We found that some of the nation’s best security studies programs do an excellent job integrating ROTC and military history into their disciplines but that many history and political science programs have little if any integration of physical and intellectual presence of the military on campus. Such cross-fertilization could be encouraged by university leaders, perhaps by creating fellowships for military officers that would bring military presence more explicitly to security studies and history programs.

Q: What about a leader of a university that has little or no ROTC presence, or perhaps one that is considering starting a corps now that "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" has been repealed? State your case for why they should encourage ROTC.

Downs: It provides opportunity and educational benefits for ROTC students and non-ROTC students alike. And it broadens the intellectual and moral horizons of students, thereby contributing to liberal and civic education. On a more practical level, it also makes the institution “look good” in the sense that it would show that the institution is no longer inappropriately hostile to the military. Being seen as hostile to the military has given many Ivy League schools a bad reputation because such hostility is seen as unfair and uncalled for in a country in which less than 1 percent of the population has had to bear the real burden of warfare -- a burden that is now more evident than ever. It comes across as snobbishly elitist and escapist.

Q:  You question the wisdom of assuming most soldiers will come from the South and Midwest and that the largest ROTC programs will be at non-elite institutions in those regions. What are the problems with this informal policy? Is it realistic to expect Harvard to start churning out ROTC graduates?

Murtazashvili: ROTC has economies of scale: once the military decides to set up a program, the costs decline as they turn out more officers. Based on this economic reasoning, they are going to set up more programs in the South and Midwest.  The fear, of course, is an officer corps that is out of step with the United States more generally. While officers from the South and Midwest are unlikely to be that different from officers trained elsewhere, we find it odd that a state as large as New York, for example, would have so few opportunities for students who want to participate in ROTC. By bringing back ROTC to the nation’s elite universities and other universities outside the South and Midwest, there would be a lot more opportunities for students to join ROTC, and they would add up to much more diversity as far as the officer corps is concerned, which we would view as a good thing.  While some of the Ivies have dwindling numbers of ROTC cadets, the number is nontrivial, and it is also important to consider the possibility that declining numbers reflected an essentially hostile stance toward the military. By brining ROTC back to the nation’s elite campuses, there could be more people willing to join as the culture changes from hostility to acceptance. And even if there are not that many cadets, even a few can have a large impact on a group. After all, the ROTC group at the University of Wisconsin is small relative to the large size of the student body, but nearly everyone we talked to had some exposure to ROTC, if only though its symbolic function.  

Q: In some ways, is the military always going to be at odds with academe? What can both sides do to improve the relationship?

Downs: First, we think that a tension between the two should be maintained because they are different in many fundamental respects that we articulate in the book, and also because such tension is good for the “productive friction” that is conducive to the educational process. But more mutual understanding is needed to provide more common ground upon which productive friction can flourish. Our hope is that universities can begin the process of mutual understanding by opening their doors to programs like ROTC and military history study, thereby demonstrating that they consider the military a legitimate institution worthy of understanding. So long as such programs are cost-effective on both sides, the military will appreciate this effort and respond accordingly. The key is building sufficient foundational respect. In our chapters on Wisconsin cadets and non-cadet students, as well as in our chapters on ROTC in the Ivy League, we show how “recognition” and mutual respect are crucial to this process of bridging the civil-military gap.

Q: You finished your book just as "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" was repealed, and added some information about the immediate effects of the policy shift. With the benefit of a bit more hindsight, what has the repeal meant for ROTC and what can we expect in coming years?

Murtazashvili: "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" gave universities a reason to keep military off campus, but it was not the only one. There are others who view the military as being at odds with the university.  Some universities have welcomed ROTC back, such as Harvard. Others, such as Brown, have not done as much to welcome ROTC back, and have in some ways elected to reject the idea that the military is a key part of the pedagogical mission of the university.  In the coming years, I would expect there to be a mix of each response. Many universities will welcome ROTC back, yet there are many opportunities for opponents of ROTC to argue against it. While I may disagree with those reasons, it is perhaps most important that the process is deliberative and open, as it was at Columbia. Regardless of the outcome of these struggles, the process is important.

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Mitch Smith

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