Last year, when elite universities began announcing their intentions to bring back ROTC, Jonathan E. Hillman and I cautioned that if Ivy League ROTC was to succeed, it would require a real commitment from both the schools and the military.
Some progress has been made. Yale has welcomed Air Force and Navy units back to campus while Harvard is hosting its first military-science class since the Vietnam era. Even Brown University, the lone holdout, is beginning to thaw. But at Columbia University, where the new Naval ROTC unit is located an hour away from campus, the program is suffering from “half-hearted implementation,” according to Columbia ROTC cadet, Ryan Cho.
Writing in the Columbia Spectator, Cho notes that the university task force assigned to oversee the new ROTC program has barred cadets from joining due to a supposed “conflict of interest.” As Cho points out, this policy means “consciously exclude[ing]” the students most invested in ROTC and who are best situated to help grow the program.
But it’s not just the Columbia administration that’s been dragging its heels. “Recruiting has been dismal at best,” Cho writes. “In the few weeks of school, I have yet to see a naval officer, let alone an NROTC midshipman.” This is unfortunate, but not unexpected. While New York City’s Army ROTC program is expanding its outreach (particularly to CUNY schools), the Navy has been slow to engage with students or to venture out from its base at SUNY-Maritime, a school all but inaccessible to most of the city’s students.
With defense cuts looming, the military is reluctant to launch new programs where student interest appears low. But the military and universities might find the means to overcome that problem if they prioritized building bridges between themselves—a choice both sides should make if they want to see change.