Elite universities reconsider their ROTC bans

The Pentagon’s stance on gays in the military remains a stumbling block

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Members of MIT’s Navy ROTC march by in the military ceremony Pass in Review this past Friday. The ceremony featured some common military traditions and described the deep history MIT has as one of only 25 universities with all three ROTC programs — Army, Navy, and Air Force.
Elizabeth D’Arienzo—The Tech

WASHINGTON — Administrators at Harvard, Brown, and other elite universities are softening their resistance to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps more than four decades after the military scholarship programs were driven from campus in the face of fierce antiwar sentiment.

Many professors, students, and administrators say the more welcoming climate is a result of growing support for the military since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But they contend it has become pronounced since February, when Pentagon leaders for the first time advocated overturning the law that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the ranks.

Some college administrators consider the ban on gays in the military discriminatory and have cited it as a reason to keep full ROTC programs off campus long after the Vietnam War ignited the controversy.

“The declaration of military leaders regarding abolition of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy means the fig leaf that university administrators and professors have been hiding behind is about to be withdrawn,” said Army National Guard Captain Marc Lindemann, a Harvard Law School graduate who completed an analysis of the issue for the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

Harvard, which has not fully recognized ROTC since the antiwar protests of the early 1970s, now allows the small number of its students who participate in the program at MIT to be commissioned as officers in Harvard Yard upon graduation. And in a highly symbolic show of support, the president of the university, Drew Gilpin Faust, has attended the ceremonies the past two years and is expected to attend again next month. Harvard also now allows cadets to include their ROTC affiliation in yearbooks.

“They have been far more receptive,” said retired Navy Captain Paul E. Mawn, a 1966 Navy ROTC graduate who runs the group Advocates for Harvard

ROTC, which he said has 2,300 members. Last year, he said, Harvard “even invited General David Petraeus,” the top US commander in the Middle East, to the commissioning ceremony.

At Brown University in Providence, where Army ROTC students must commute to Providence College for drills and military science classes, a top dean has pledged to do more to support students in ROTC, including finding ways to award them academic credit for their military courses.

Last month, the Faculty Senate at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., established a committee to study whether to overturn its ban.

And in another sign of a thaw, the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, predicted after an April 10 meeting with Admiral Mike Mullen, the nation’s top military officer, that “the campus will be much more receptive — this and other universities, if not almost all of them — to rebuilding that relationship.”

“I think the policy has been anachronistic for a long time,” said David Kennedy, a history professor at Stanford who, along with William J. Perry, the former secretary of defense, proposed the university’s committee that’s studying the issue. “We are developing a separate military caste that the [nation’s] founders never intended.”

The policy reviews come at an opportune time; ROTC scholarship applications nationwide are increasing between 12 and 15 percent each year, according to officials.

The ROTC program dates to 1862, when the federal government established land-grant colleges and required them to offer military instruction as part of their curriculum. In recent decades, it has provided cadets college tuition in return for a commitment to serve at least four years as an officer in the Army, Navy, or Air Force.

ROTC cadets first studied at Norwich University in Vermont, and the program had deep roots in the Ivy League until the turmoil of the Vietnam War, when the cadets were the most visible sign of the military on campus.

The Army ROTC unit at Harvard abandoned the campus in 1970, followed a year later by the Air Force and Navy units. Other universities did not renew their contracts with the Department of Defense.

While the number of ROTC units rebounded around the country in subsequent years, the program remained exiled from some of the nation’s most selective universities, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Brown, and the University of Chicago.

In the 1990s, these universities maintained that the military’s stance on gays conflicted with their own antidiscrimination policies, justifying a continued refusal to recognize ROTC.

Some universities, including Harvard, also took steps to bar military recruiters from campus, but a 1996 law and a 2006 Supreme Court ruling stipulated they must provide access to recruiters and allow their students to participate in ROTC programs. Still, for ROTC students at universities that do not fully recognize the program, this means not only commuting to another school for military instruction — which is commonplace for other universities that have consolidated ROTC programs — but also not receiving credit for their military science courses.

This year, Harvard has 20 undergraduates enrolled in ROTC at MIT. But it does not credit their ROTC courses or share program costs. Instead, private funds from Harvard graduates cover the estimated $400,000 to provide the students with classroom space, instructor salaries, and other support, according to Mawn.

“We want to get official recognition and create a long Crimson line of ROTC graduates,” he said.

Other influential alumni voices say a policy change is long overdue, especially now that the military leadership has changed its view of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays and lesbians serving in the military.

“The emperor has no clothes,” said Theodore Roosevelt IV, a Navy ROTC graduate of Harvard who served two tours in Vietnam. “If the Harvard faculty thinks it’s inappropriate [to embrace ROTC], then they are being intellectually dishonest. Harvard has a long, distinguished history of creating future leaders, including military leaders.”

A Harvard spokesman, John Longbrake, said there are no plans to significantly change its stance on ROTC, but indicated that the Pentagon’s ongoing review of the policy on gay military service could change that. The university administration, he said, will “follow any federal policy changes with interest.”

Other schools are doing more. At Brown, which has only one student enrolled in the ROTC program at Providence College, a new student group called Students for ROTC at Brown is circulating a petition calling for Navy or Air Force ROTC departments to be reinstated and urging the university to award credit for Army ROTC cadets at Providence College.

“Our main goal is to reinvigorate the program and increase the population,” said Keith DellaGrotta, a senior who started the group but is not in the ROTC.

The university administration, for its part, says it is highly receptive. “We have had some very good conversations about how we can better support students in the program,” said Katherine Bergeron, the undergraduate dean of the university. “We are looking forward to, or anticipating, a day when more students are interested in participating.”

While she said the issue of awarding credit would have to be voted on by the faculty, “I think it would be a very worthwhile thing to do.” But she acknowledged there are practical challenges. For example, official recognition might require Brown to have its own department of military science, staffed by members of the Brown faculty.

As for the military, leaders are eager to see the program fully embraced.

After his meeting with Columbia’s president this month, Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he sees a “transformative moment” for the ROTC debate.

“I think representation . . . in particular [at] universities in the Northeast would be of great benefit to both the universities as well as the military, as well as the country,” Mullen said.