The Hard Road To A Columbia ROTC

John McCain and Barack Obama’s calls to Columbia to end its ban on the ROTC continue to yield procedural results, however much any real change remains in doubt. Columbia is set to feature two informational forums in coming weeks prior to a student survey on whether to lift or continue a ban on the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps, the Columbia Spectator reported yesterday. Each forum will feature panels divided evenly between supporters and opponents of the proposal. The results of the vote won’t be binding; the issue would then likely be taken up by the University Senate. When it last addressed the question, in 2005, the Senate rejected an ROTC return.

President Bollinger injected his inimitable voice into the question in an email to students last week, which, unsurprisingly, began with a misrepresentation. Here’s an except from his email. Spot the inaccuracy:

In 2005, the University Senate voted overwhelmingly against formally inviting ROTC onto campus. Senate members may have had a variety of reasons for their votes, but the record and official reports make it reasonably clear that the predominant reason was one of adhering to a core principle of the University: that we will not have programs on the campus that discriminate against students on the basis of such categories as race, gender, military veteran status, or sexual orientation. Under the current “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of the Defense Department, openly gay and lesbian students could or would be excluded from participating in ROTC activities. That is inconsistent with the fundamental values of the University. A number of our peer institutions have taken a similar position.

Wait, who implemented Don’t Ask Don’t Tell? Not the defense department. As Erin O’Connor deftly commented “I’ve said it before and I will say it again: DADT is the creation of Congress, not the military; students, faculty, and administrators should feel free to protest it, but they ought to aim their protests in the right direction.” Hopefully the student panels might set the record straight on this question.

Bollinger then went on to call Columbia “open for robust discussion and debate” on the question; a condition not especially obvious about an issue whose revival required not one but two presidential candidates taking the university to task. Change still looks like a difficult prospect, given the looming obstacle of a University Senate vote. In 2005, in the face of majority student support, the University Senate, composed mainly of professors and administrators, rejected a return by a daunting vote of 53-10. In the face of the McCain and Obama publicity, a significant showing of student support might be sufficient to shift votes, but, given ROTC bans’ 40-year reign as elite college doctrine, it’s difficult to become too hopeful.
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Update:
The Columbia Spectator reinforces my point today:
“lost in the debate is one important fact—the power to revisit that policy is out of the hands of the undergraduate student councils, as well as student groups.”

Anthony Paletta

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer.

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