With the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, elite colleges now have a chance to make good on their promises and bring the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) back to campus.
For the past four decades, ROTC has been barred from some of the nation’s most prestigious schools, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Stanford. The program was first pushed off campus in the 1960s and ’70s in protest of the Vietnam war, and has been kept off campuses in protest of government policy excluding men and women who are openly homosexual from serving in the military. With Congress having now overturned that policy, ROTC’s return to these campuses has become a real possibility. “I look forward to pursuing discussions with military officials and others to achieve Harvard’s full and formal recognition of ROTC,” Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust said in a statement. Columbia’s Lee Bollinger likewise celebrated the legislation: “We now have the opportunity for a new era in the relationship between universities and our military services.”
Achieving formal recognition for ROTC on elite campuses will be an important victory. Not only will it reduce many of the administrative hurdles that cadets on these campuses currently have to navigate, it will also eliminate some of the more backhanded arrangements the various universities created to justify their acceptance of ROTC dollars. For example, Harvard’s practice has been to “allow” patriotic alumni to pay cadets’ ROTC fees through a private trust fund—a fund established in good measure to give the university “plausible deniability” that it was endorsing ROTC.
As welcome as these changes will be, however, the lifting of the ban against ROTC will be a lost opportunity unless advocates press both universities and the military for more substantive changes, and ensure that words of support are followed by concrete action. Absent such a push, the universities and the military likely will stick with something very close to the status quo, in which token, light-footprint programs continue to operate largely on neighboring campuses.
The chief hurdle is that bringing ROTC to campus is expensive. Several liberal commentators and faculty have recently observed—with more than a touch of triumph—that a money-strapped Pentagon is unlikely to establish new units where there has been such limited student interest. The universities will open the doors, these commentators argue, but the military will say no.
At the same time, however, top military leadership has become increasingly aware of—and vocal about—the social costs associated with current policy. In a speech at Duke University last September, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted that the military’s limited presence in the Northeast and urban areas has left large swaths of the country “void of relationships and understanding of the armed forces.” Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has likewise expressed his interest in “exploring a greater ROTC presence across the country, but particularly in those places where we are underrepresented demographically.” If the Pentagon is serious about these “costs,” it will have to push its own manpower bureaucracy to invest in a more balanced officer corps.
Elite universities, in turn, clearly have an important role to play in redressing the growing social and geographic imbalances within the military. While the Pentagon must be willing to step forward, universities can also shoulder some of the costs involved in renewing their ROTC programs. With their considerable resources, elite universities certainly could offer incentives on par with, or even better than, those provided by other schools: office and training space, financial aid supplements for ROTC scholarships, room and board for cadets, and so on.
Faculty can help bring ROTC into mainstream campus life by offering appropriate academic credit for ROTC coursework, particularly in advanced subject areas. The common objection among faculty is that the ROTC curriculum is too vocational. This objection merits revisiting, however, as universities have increasingly allowed credit for professional or vocational courses. At Stanford, students can receive credit for internships; at Yale for teacher certification programs; at Columbia, with its new finance major, for accounting classes. Furthermore, there’s no reason faculty cannot work with the military to enhance the ROTC curriculum and develop rigorous offerings in such relevant fields as political science, anthropology, or economics. Universities could put this opportunity to even greater use by strengthening their course offerings in weak subject areas, such as military and diplomatic history.
Top-tier schools should aim to have top-tier ROTC programs. In so doing, they would help ensure that the American officer corps reflects America as a whole—thereby allowing ROTC to fulfill its original purpose. No less important, returning ROTC to elite university campuses will restore a proud tradition of military service. When the first ROTC units were established at the land grant colleges, students at Harvard, Yale, and other prominent schools petitioned for their own programs so they too might have the chance to demonstrate their patriotism. And serve they did. Yale’s Memorial Hall is covered from floor to ceiling with the names of students and faculty who fought from World War I through the Vietnam war, while Harvard boasts the highest number of Medal of Honor recipients outside the service academies.
Not everyone agrees with the decision to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But its repeal does provide an opening for repairing relations between some of the nation’s top universities and the military services—a rift that has been unhealthy for universities, their students, and the armed forces. It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t go to waste.
—Gary Schmitt & Cheryl Miller