ROTC Back in the News

Harvard President Drew Faust probably didn’t expect criticism when she said she looked forward to reinstating the Reserve Officer Training Corps once the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is ended. But Senator Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican and a lieutenant colonel in the state’s National Guard, said he couldn’t understand Harvard’s priorities: how could the university maintain its four-decade ban on the ROTC while promoting the Dream Act, a plan to provide amnesty to students who are in the United States illegally? Why hold the ROTC hostage to a change in military policy?
The ban on ROTC at Harvard and many other universities is an artifact of the student anti-Vietnam protests of the late Sixties. In the spring of 1969, students at Harvard, led by members of Students for a Democratic Society, stormed and occupied University Hall. In the uprising, eventually beaten back by police, rioters burned down a Marine training classroom and demanded an end to any kind of military presence on campus. “ROTC must go because we oppose the policies of the United States and we oppose the military that perpetrates them,” a statement by the students said, with clear intention of scapegoating its own military cadets for a war created and sustained by Washington politicians.
Once the rationale for banning ROTC migrated over to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the tactic remained, but with a different kind of scapegoating: blaming ROTC and the military in general for a policy created by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton. Opposition to “don’t ask, don’t tell” is widespread on campuses and sincerely held, but if Harvard and other campuses wish to dissociate themselves from discriminatory organizations it should blame Congress and perhaps refuse federal funding until DADT is dropped. Harvard’s federal funding amounts to about 15 percent of its operating budget, so it’s best not to look for an outbreak of moral principle here.

At Harvard, ROTC students are accepted, but they get no funding, no academic credit and must take their training at nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Joseph Kristol and Daniel West, new Harvard graduates commissioned as Marine second lieutenants in June 2009, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “So Harvard today pays for future bankers to take accounting courses at M.I.T., but refuses to pay for aspiring military officers who take ROTC courses… The same Harvard that one produced ten recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, and warrior-scholars such as Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, now turns its back on its patriotic history.” Harry R. Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College, noted in his influential book about the university, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, the cold shoulder given to ROTC reflects the campus’ indifference to leadership.
Some 600 colleges, mostly in the south, maintain ROTC programs without much controversy. But at many elite schools—including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Brown, Tufts and the University of Chicago—the yen to punish ROTC and its cadets is still alive. And all too often, behind the principled arguments over DADT, lies another factor: a broad hostility to the armed forces that surfaced with Vietnam and extended to Iraq and Afghanistan.
ROTC students in uniform and veterans still attract bitter comments from classmates. A University of Michigan magazine published a note about a 26-year-old student, a veteran of the Iraq war, who said he is often insulted by classmates, with the top two insults being “You were in the military—why would you ever do that?” and “Did you kill a lot of people?” At Harvard several years ago, faculty members were reported hurling insults at an ROTC student in uniform, and students asking passersby to sign holiday cards for service members overseas were met by cries of “fascists.”
Many Americans, particularly on the left, are emotionally negative toward the military and toward patriotism in general. George Kateb, a former political theorist at Princeton, author of Patriotism and Other Mistakes, thinks patriotism is based on “a state of moral confusion” and is “the most deadly form of group attachment.” Another sign of the move away from patriotism came in the days after 9/ll when several colleges banned the American flag, ostensibly to avoid hurting the feelings of foreign students. A more likely explanation is that these colleges were reflecting the general disdain for America that is now so common in our textbooks and schools.
Stephen Rosen , a professor of government at Harvard, addressed the Harvard ROTC ceremony three years ago and said: “You did not choose the peacetime military, but, rather, the life of a warrior. Harvard honors public service, but it is uneasy with war and with warriors, and it is no longer comfortable with the idea of Harvard as an American University, as opposed to an international university.”
Critics of the military seem not to notice that opposition to ROTC undercuts one of their favorite arguments against the armed forces: that they disproportionately recruit the poor and the uneducated. But if the academic world shuts down ROTC and lets it be known that it has no special respect for the military, the number of highly educated soldiers, sailors and marines will of course be limited. Yale professor David Gelernter asks, “How can you be terrified of an alleged new draft… and opposed to ROTC soliciting first-rate volunteers?”
A broader problem emerges from the pages of the 2006 book, AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from Military Service and How It Hurts the Country. “Members of the military are strangers to the upper classes. And it seems privileged folks want to keep it that way,” write the authors, Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer. The general attitude of the upper classes, they write, is that joining the armed forces is something other people do, people from rural areas and small towns who have no other options, not people at elite universities or in elite professions. A survey by the Project on the Gap Between the Military and American Society showed that people in leadership positions in society and without military experience have the lowest opinion of the military of any group surveyed. Andrew J. Bacevich a Vietnam veteran and a professor at Boston University said people in high places think “although we don’t know you, rest assured we admire you—now please go away.” Josiah Bunting III, former Army officer and college president, is even more blunt. He says students at top boarding and public schools and the famous universities and colleges are now “fully settled…in their contempt or condescension for the profession of arms.”
This attitude accounts for much anti-ROTC feeling and the strong streak of intolerance toward military recruiters that has little to do with “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Some well-off communities, such as Cambridge, Mass., and San Francisco have launched initiatives to ban military recruiting. Under the No Child Left Behind law, high schools are required to give names, phone numbers and addresses of graduating students to military recruiters unless parents object. In challenging that law, Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union said, “Students have a right to not be bothered by aggressive military recruiters.” Possible translation: “how dare they ask our children to consider joining their army.”
Still, there are some encouraging signs of change. In the wake of 9/11, alumni and students at selective universities began a drive to discuss a return of ROTC. At Yale undergraduates founded the Yale Student Military Organization. The Yale Political Union concluded that the university ought to bring back ROTC, a move some students said would help the school live up to its motto, “For God, For Country, For Yale.” The college Republicans mounted a “Bring Back ROTC ” drive and one student founded the Semper Fi Society, which features a man sitting at a table in the middle of campus encouraging students to enroll in the Marine Corps’ Summer Platoon Leader Class. The New York Times reported that opinion at elite colleges was becoming more favorable to ROTC.
A turning point in the debate may have come when presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama spoke at Columbia in 2008. McCain said, “I don’t think that’s right” to keep ROTC off campus—and was met with a loud chorus of boos. Obama, Columbia’s most famous graduate, took the floor and agreed with McCain: “The notion that young people here at Columbia, or anywhere, at any university, aren’t offered the option of participating in military service, I think is a mistake.” The crowd went silent. Obama’s unexpected answer energized pro-ROTC alumni and student groups like the Hamilton Society, which are trying to get ROTC reinstated. His message rippled through the student bodies at anti-ROTC campuses. At strongly liberal Brown University, which forces its ROTC students to enroll in the program at nearby Providence University, the student newspaper cited Obama’s comment and urged a change in campus ROTC policy. “While we agree that don’t-ask-don’t-tell is offensive and imprudent, we feel the ROTC ban is counterproductive.” The Yale Political Union decided that the university should bring back ROTC and at Harvard, the undergraduate council passed a bill, jointly supported by campus Democrats and Republicans—urging the school to list ROTC courses on Harvard transcripts and say that it “is proud of (students’) service to the nation.”
At Columbia, pro-ROTC students hold their own when various votes and polls are taken. In the last vote, the pro side narrowly lost to the anti. A vote of the Columbia senate, made of up of faculty as well as students, went heavily against reinstatement, but that may be because the faculty, which includes many anti-war activists of the 1960s, won’t let go of Vietnam. Students in the senate are believed to have voted largely in favor of ROTC.
Another sign of the times at Columbia: sociologist Allan Silver strongly opposes “don’t ask don’t tell,” but he thinks ROTC should be encouraged on campus. He says that having student soldiers live and study with students who sometimes criticize them would produce better soldiers. This seems to be an increasingly powerful argument in the campus debate: if you want a better army why ban the officers of tomorrow from the best campuses.
At Harvard, as at many elite schools, pro-ROTC forces have more leverage than a decade ago. A thousand or so alumni have been quietly pushing for ROTC reinstatement. Anonymous contributors, presumably alumni, pay the entire tab for ROTC candidates. But the controversial reign of Lawrence Summers as Harvard present changed the tone of debate. In the wake of 9/ll, Summers called for ROTC to be invited back “We need to be careful about adopting any policy on campus of non-support for those involved in defending the country,” he said.
Summers announced that a military career is “a noble calling,” a phrase rarely heard anywhere near Harvard Yard. He also pointedly noted that the Kennedy School of government at Harvard had never honored anyone in uniform, and announced that the “coastal elites” had moved too far away from the ethics and values of the American mainstream. These comments, along with his more famous reflections on male-female differences in science, enraged the largely leftist faculty, creating the pressure that led him to resign in 2006.
Harvard has still not made a serious move to bring ROTC back, but President Faust, has taken a step or two in the right direction. She spoke at a ceremony for the few Harvard students who had received ROTC commission in programs at nearby institutions. And when she threw out the first ball at a Red Sox game in Fenway Park, she made a point of bringing ROTC members with her. Still, it does not sink in with her that she is punishing ROTC and the military for a federal law beyond their control.


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

6 thoughts on “ROTC Back in the News

  1. As a retired Naval Reserve Officer who served on active duty, no experience would better prepare our leaders than service in the United State military. No school, college or university can do more for its students and country than support the military and military members.

  2. Do the academics realize that if there are not enough volunteers, we might have to go back to a draft? Not supporting ROTC is like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

  3. @John Wilson
    Princeton does not give course credit for its ROTC nor are its ROTC instructors Professors (the head of the program is the Director of Army Officer Education). If the ROTC program can get around this issue at Princeton, surely this would be possible elsewhere.
    ROTC has changed a great deal since the Vietnam era, as has the military in general. One would be smart to consider not merely why the schism happened, but what can be done to mend that which is broken.

  4. It’s remarkable to me that John Leo fails to address the key reason why ROTC originally left campus in the late 1960s and why it continues to pose a problem for colleges even if Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is repealed. Congress requires colleges to give academic credit for ROTC classes, give faculty status to unqualified ROTC instructors, and give the military total control over the curriculum. Doesn’t this raise serious issues of academic freedom, academic standards, and academic governance that deserve consideration? Can Leo name any other external group which is given control over course content and faculty hiring on a college campus? I’d be curious to know if Leo has a response to these important issues, rather than blaming “anti-military” sentiment for everything.

  5. This demonstrates again that Harvard is another has-been school, living off its reputation. Unfortunately, it’s not the only university in that situation, which is not a good sign for our educational system.

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