We all know the story of Lucy and Charlie Brown–just as Charlie Brown is lining up to kick the football, Lucy pulls it away, and Charlie Brown tumbles down. And then Charlie Brown, ever gullible, falls for the same trick over and over again.
Reading Brown president Ruth Simmons’ recommendation that the university not permit ROTC to return to campus reminded me a bit of Lucy and the football. Brown, as her communiqué noted, phased out ROTC in 1969, and the program was gone from campus by 1972. Like other comparable anti-ROTC institutions (Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Stanford), Brown has allowed students to enroll in ROTC at a local campus (in Brown’s case, Providence College), but the campus newspaper reported in 2010 that “in recent years, only a handful have done so.”
There never was a coherent intellectual rationale for Brown’s policy. Neither Brown, nor any other anti-ROTC school, expressed opposition to the government’s overseas policies by declining all federal funds—an outcome that would have harmed the “principled” faculty who championed the ROTC bans in the first place. Instead, the universities banned ROTC, the only effect of which was to harm a small percentage of their students who wanted to serve their country and earn a first-class education.
The end of the Cold War removed even the pretense of a foreign policy justification for continued ROTC bans. But then the 1993 Don’t Ask Don’t Tell law intervened. While gays and lesbians previously had been banned from serving in the military by regulation, DADT elevated the discrimination to the level of a statute. The peculiar law—which allowed gays and lesbians to serve, provided that they (and in the military, only they) never spoke to colleagues of their romantic lives or even allowed other members of the military to see them, off base, with a romantic partner—was cited by anti-ROTC schools for continuing the Cold War era ban, on grounds that the statute violated the universities’ anti-discrimination policies.
And so, just as Cold War foreign policies represented the key obstacle to bringing back ROTC to elite schools in the 1980s, now DADT seemed to represent the key obstacle to bringing back ROTC. The connection between ROTC and DADT became noticeably more prominent during former Harvard Law School dean Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination hearings. In the run-up to the 2010 legislative repeal of the law, key Ivy leaders (though, tellingly, not Simmons) affirmed that they wanted to bring back ROTC. Harvard’s Drew Faust committed the school to bringing back ROTC if Congress acted, noting, “As a further embodiment of that tradition [of service], a ROTC program open to all ought to be fully and formally present on our campus.” Just after passage of the repeal, Columbia’s Lee Bollinger said that the congressional action “effectively ends what has been a vexing problem for higher education, including at Columbia—given our desire to be open to our military, but not wanting to violate our own core principle against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.” Indeed, as the Atlantic’s James Fallows noted at the time, the prospect of bring ROTC back to elite university campuses became, in and of itself, an argument for repeal.
But last week, much like Lucy with Charlie Brown, Brown’s Simmons pulled away the football. In a 2,210-word missive, Simmons couldn’t even bring herself to say that she favored continuing the on-campus ban on ROTC. Instead, she covered herself bureaucratically, announcing that she would “endorse the recommendations and majority position of the [campus] Committee”—which had recommended continuing the on-campus ban. The document’s wording suggested that Simmons understood that her policy had scant justification, and that she hoped to shield herself from criticism from alumni and donors by retreating into impenetrable academic jargon.
As justification for her position, Simmons declared that the military’s “policy barring transgender individuals from military service [on medical and psychological grounds] must be changed.” Indeed, she continued, “to root out the manifestation and vestiges of discrimination from our national life is an equally important dimension of serving the nation” to serving in the military itself.
If, in fact, Simmons considered the issue of the military’s medical and psychological policies of such significance, it’s hard to understand why she didn’t make clear in 2010 that she believed her school should continue to ban an on-campus ROTC even if the military allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly. Such a statement, of course, would have shattered the prevailing political and media consensus that ending DADT would bring back ROTC to all campuses where a ROTC program was practical.
Perhaps the military should bow to President Simmons’ expertise; and, as she demands, change its “policy barring transgender individuals from military service.” Even if the military did so tomorrow, however, I suspect that—like Lucy with her football—Simmons would pull away any chance of ROTC returning to Brown’s campus by citing yet another, new objection. Both her recommendation, and her handling of this issue through a release that seemed designed to obscure her position, deserve the strongest possible condemnation.