At Columbia, how is it that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” could inspire such heated debate among students? The average student opposing the return of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps to Columbia University might be fairly described as a left-wing “radical,” while the university’s tiny conservative contingent is surely among the program’s supporters. Still, Columbia’s ROTC advocates are not much like Glenn Beck; one of their main organizers has admitted his hatred for Fox News and his love for National Public Radio.
For ROTC’s opponents, the military represents a threat to academic freedom, and its flaws are reasons to keep it at arm’s length. For its supporters, ROTC represents service to one’s nation, while the military’s flaws are in fact reasons to engage it.
With DADT’s repeal, Columbia’s University Senate promptly commissioned a task force to examine whether ROTC should be invited back to campus. They took a survey of students recently in the program (currently, Columbians in ROTC must commute to Fordham) and organized three public hearings. At the second hearing, Anthony Maschek, an Army veteran who took nine bullets in Iraq, was jeered and called “racist” in the middle of his remarks. His offense? He told anti-ROTC students that the U.S. military protects them from men in “other parts of the world [who] are plotting to kill you right now. . . . These people seriously are trying to kill you. They hate America, they hate you.” At the next hearing, one ROTC opponent derided Maschek’s statement as “one-dimensional.” Another opponent explained to the Columbia Spectator why they jeered: “Maschek’s remarks implied that Iraq has attacked the United States, and that Iraqis are thus among the people who want to kill Americans. But since Iraq did not attack the U.S. on September 11 or since then . . . Maschek’s statement seemed to imply that all Muslims want to kill Americans.”
The anti-ROTC students all surely realize that some extremist Muslims seek to kill Americans; after all, the students are in Manhattan. Instead, the difficulty is relational. ROTC opponents have repeatedly insinuated that Columbia does not owe anything special to the nation, that America and its military have no privileged relationship with its universities. Multiple speakers condemned the prospect of on-campus ROTC making even the slightest claim on Columbia’s absolute self-governance; while waivers are used at, for example, Princeton, the ROTC statute normally requires a school to allow the unit’s senior commanding officer to act as a full professor, and to give full credit for military coursework. Such critics distance themselves from the notion that Columbia is an American school with obligations that might follow. They certainly distance themselves from the idea, articulated by one veteran student (to the derision of several ROTC opponents at the final public hearing), that the U.S. military actually provides the protection necessary for Columbia to enjoy its academic freedom.
The demand for absolute priority of Columbia’s stated policies over those of the military’s also helps explain why ROTC opponents’ focus on the ban on transgendered servicemembers in the military. But one could oppose the ban while still believing that Columbia owes it to the nation to bring ROTC back, warts and all. Moreover, as one ROTC supporter (himself a Marine Corps veteran and professed LGBT supporter) suggested at the final public hearing, the reason for the ban is not so clearly discriminatory. The military gives medical discharges to transgendered persons in accordance with the guidelines of the American Psychiatric Association, which lists gender identity disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It seems unfair to demand that, until the military comes out as more progressive than the American Psychiatric Association (itself hardly a bastion of conservatism), it may not set foot on campus.
At the last hearing, students and faculty offered another reason to oppose ROTC: the incidence of sexual assaults against female servicemembers. One pro-ROTC student countered with evidence that the military is doing more to combat rape than is Columbia. On top of racism allegations, several opponents denounced the “poverty draft,” the military’s practice of recruiting vigorously in low-income communities. Several veterans at the hearing bridled at the insinuation that they had no free choice in signing up, including one proud Navy SEAL who grew up on welfare, “eating government cheese.”
In the public debate at Columbia, ROTC’s supporters consistently emphasize that the military’s shortcomings should not repel but instead challenge students; they want the military to be improved and diversified by the contributions of the officers Columbia could be providing. A faculty statement in support of ROTC’s return agreed that “[i]t is damaging to democratic ideals of equality that graduates of highly selective, private universities are so underrepresented in the nation’s officer corps.”
Faculty supporters lamented having students so profoundly alienated from the U.S. military: “Our students’ prevailing experience is of great personal distance from military service, limiting preparation for citizenship.” ROTC’s supporters are convinced its return will change the military for the better, while giving all Columbians, students and faculty, military and non-military alike, a chance to learn about and engage the military up close, as is the norm at almost every university in the country. If they will take the opportunity, the program’s opponents may find themselves with more to criticize—and more to honor.