Bridging the Gap Between the Military and Elite Campuses

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

January 09, 2011

President Obama's signing of legislation ending the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy in late December is significant for many reasons. It is a major step in the advancement of gay rights, and it will enhance the armed services by providing more opportunities to those homosexuals who possess the skills that the military needs to perform its increasingly demanding tasks in a dangerous world. The repeal also presents an opportunity to bridge the gap that has divided many elite private colleges and universities from the military since the late 1960s.

Often the most visible symbols of a military presence on campus, the Reserve Officer Training Corps units were major targets of protesters against the Vietnam War. Militants firebombed dozens of ROTC installations across the nation and harassed cadets. Although the vast majority of ROTC units weathered the storm, programs vanished at a few dozen private colleges, including Caltech, Stanford, and five Ivy League institutions.

Debate still rages over the possible reasons for the ROTC exodus at the height of the war. They included concerns about the intellectual rigor of the program's courses, the quality of the military-science professors, the programs' independence from the usual faculty and administrative oversight, and the intense political pressures exerted by antiwar forces on the universities. But those specific objections to ROTC were accompanied by a deeper objection: that the values and practices of the military were incompatible with those of higher education. The military is organized around authority and command and is dedicated to the professional application of violence. Universities, ideally at least, are devoted to the reasoned resolution of differences and freedom of the mind.

Whatever motivated the retreat, ROTC left many elite campuses. Later, in the 1980s and 90s, the nation's disaffection with the military began to wane as the memory of the war in Vietnam lost immediacy. Minor movements to restore ROTC developed at several Ivy League colleges but had only limited success. Some colleges rather begrudgingly recognized pro-ROTC groups as student organizations, but opening the door to full-fledged programs was another matter. Unlike the nation as a whole, campus leaders at these institutions still felt awkward about the military. Meanwhile, by the end of the 1980s, a new objection to the military had surfaced: its treatment of gay men and lesbians. By the time "don't ask, don't tell" was established, in 1993, the new civil-rights opposition to ROTC had replaced antiwar and antimilitary sentiment as the leading moral objection to ROTC.

September 11, 2001, complicated matters. Al Qaeda's attacks on America brought enhanced appreciation for the military on campuses, reviving movements to bring back full-fledged programs. Student referenda at Columbia and Harvard supported ROTC, and an energetic alliance of students, faculty, and alumni at Columbia took the cause all the way to the University Senate in 2005, where it foundered. James H. Applegate, an astronomy professor who co-chaired the Columbia task force that considered the renewal of ROTC in 2004-5, told us in an interview that the defeat of ROTC there could be summed up in four words: "Don't ask, don't tell."

The repeal of the law eliminates the impediment that the policy posed, plausibly opening the door to ROTC's return. Some antimilitary objections have returned, along with the standard academic concerns. But many university leaders have said they would support ROTC's return if "don't ask, don't tell" were repealed, and Columbia, Harvard, and Stanford are among the institutions that have established committees to examine the question. In addition, much has changed on campus since the 1960s and 70s: ROTC's academic standards have further improved, and higher education has expanded the range of courses and activities that receive academic credit (as ROTC does) to include dance, yoga, and myriad internships.

More important, leaders of elite colleges appear to have acquired a sense of obligation to help bridge the gap between their institutions and the military. As the journalist Thomas E. Ricks related on Meet the Press in June, "The U.S. military is 1 percent of this country, and it's carrying 99 percent of the burden of the war." To continue to hold the line against ROTC in the face of this disconcerting fact seems ungenerous, to say the least.

In addition, the wave of veteran enrollment under the new GI Yellow Ribbon program has made Ivy League institutions more aware of the financial and pedagogical advantages that an appropriate military presence brings to the campus. After decades of promoting the benefits of diversity, colleges are now recognizing the contributions that military experience can make to the diversity of the intellectual and moral climate. As Peter Awn, dean of Columbia's School of General Studies, told us in an interview, "There isn't hostility toward them because they represent the military. So it's a very, very different climate. And more often than not, the traditional students find them really interesting. ... I think this is good for Columbia undergraduate education. It adds something unique to the intellectual discourse in the classroom that we have not had for decades."

The same argument applies to ROTC, and we believe that many colleges will seriously consider bringing the program back. If they do, two questions remain. First: Will the military play ball? Some military leaders still harbor resentment over what happened 40 years ago. The military has refocused its recruitment away from the Northeast and urban centers like Chicago and Los Angeles and concentrated on institutions in the South, Southwest, and Midwest, where it considers its efforts more cost-effective and likelier to produce good warriors. That feeling is not universal, however, and the military severed its ties with many Ivy universities only reluctantly.

The second question is: What form might a renewed participation in ROTC take? If full-fledged programs are deemed inadvisable, other meaningful measures could be put in place.

A list of such reforms could include allowing credit for certain program courses; providing more financial support for cadets to cover expenses for travel to host colleges; pooling with other institutions to provide more but smaller host programs; and paying for cadets' social activities.

There is, though, a final question: Why does this matter? After all, the American military is the best fighting force in the world, with or without the Ivy League's full participation.

But the U.S. military shoulders the most difficult and fundamental burden of citizenship—the national defense—and the isolation of the nation's most privileged students from exposure to this responsibility constitutes what the Columbia sociologist Allan Silver has called a "corrosive civic scandal."

Basic civic equality called for the end of "don't ask, don't tell." It also calls for the Ivies to participate more meaningfully in the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Donald Alexander Downs is a professor of political science, law, and journalism at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Ilia Murtazashvili is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Their book, Arms and the University: Military Presence and the Civic Education of Non-Military Students, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.