When and Why ROTC Should Return to Columbia
- - Position and Discussion Paper

Allan Silver
Department of Sociology
Columbia University
October 17, 2008

I know first hand the passions that drove ROTC out of Columbia. During mounting tensions that exploded into the Columbia crisis of 1968, I was among faculty alerted to intervene in fistfights between students opposing and participating in the Reserve Officers Training Corps. Students faced conscription and faculty debated whether to send grades to draft boards. It was an inflamed and desperate, sometimes a violent time. Four decades later, the atmosphere is very different. It often appears that that objection to “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” [DADT], the law prohibiting military service by open homosexuals, is the sole principled obstacle to ROTC’s restoration. A Spectator editorial last January made a strong case for the exceptional status of ROTC, and its return to Columbia, despite the university’s policy against discrimination. Together with others, I have argued for this position. However, ROTC is unlikely to be granted an exceptional status and, if it were, might lack adequate legitimation on campus.

DADT is not the only principled cause for objection to an ROTC program at Columbia. In 1969, a faculty-student committee unanimously articulated another in a report accepted by faculties and other governing bodies. It recommended that the “...administration... terminate the present arrangements...for the NROTC program and seek instead a relationship in which...any course offered...shall carry credit...only if it is also listed in the offerings of a regular academic department... [and in which] instructors...not hold academic rank unless appointed according to regular procedures.” Other selective, private institutions, among them Yale and Stanford, sought similar changes. In all such cases, the Department of Defense withdrew ROTC programs.

Provisions of the ROTC Vitalization Act of 1964 prohibited these changes and continue to do so. This legislation states that “No unit may be established or maintained at an institution unless (1) the senior commissioned officer of the armed force concerned...is given the academic rank of professor... [and] (2) the institution adopts, as part of its curriculum... [a program] which the Secretary of the military department concerned prescribes and conducts...” Despite this explicit language, it may well be administratively possible, with good will by both parties, to create an ROTC program consistent with faculty control of curricula and appointments. Modification of the statute’s language, however, would respect the intellectual self-government of universities and facilitate a positive response by Columbia and other institutions.

Contrary to a prevailing impression, Columbia and other private universities never “banned” ROTC. Half the Columbia committee’s members interpreted its recommendations as canceling “...exceptions from normal [academic] procedures which were granted to the Navy during or immediately after World War II. We regret that we did not take such action before the present mood on campus...but we cannot refuse to take steps to correct an academically irregular situation merely because that mood arose.” This “irregular” situation largely dated from a deeply consensual, total war ending in definitive victory over six decades ago. In effect, private universities – not required, like land-grant institutions, to have ROTC programs – decided that World War II did not offer a long-term model. Faculty authority over curricula and appointments is to be maintained during times both of peace and of military engagements open to democratic political contestation. This is the second principled concern about ROTC.

DADT is not the military’s policy. It is legislation, and its reform rests with the presidency and Congress. Stupid and cruel discharges of homosexual service members continue. Many ignore the third, neglected element of the legislation’s informal name -- Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell-Don’t Pursue. However, a new administration and Congress open new political opportunities for reform. In addition, military perspectives are changing. Veterans studying at Columbia report that in practice open homosexuals in military service are widely accepted. My conversations with mid-rank officers confirm this and also suggest that resistance to reform will decline with the retirement of high-level officers whose careers began in the Vietnam War and its sour aftermath. Pressing needs for manpower encourages the recruitment and retention of all competent personnel. Added to public trends favoring equality for homosexuals, these developments offer realistic hope that DADT will be reformed in an approaching future.

On campus, student initiatives and strong statements by both presidential candidates have created a valuable opportunity for public debate. Columbia’s administration rightly observes that the Department of Defense [DOD] has not indicated interest in restoring ROTC at Columbia. However, this requires interpretation in light of the “Solomon Amendment”, enacted by Congress in 1996. It states that “No funds...may be provided...to an institution of higher education...if the Secretary of Defense determines that such institution... has a policy or practice ... that either prohibits, or in effect prevents...the Secretary of a military department from maintaining, establishing or operating a unit of the Senior Reserve Officer Training Corps...at that institution...” No Secretary of Defense has made such a request. Nevertheless, the Solomon Amendment is not a dead letter. When law schools recently sought to deny entrance to military recruiters because of DADT, the prospect that federal funds would be denied to their universities under other provisions of this statute was very much in play. These law schools, including Columbia’s, admit military recruiters for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps on equal terms with others. Pending a reform of the Solomon Amendment, delicate tact is required in contacts about ROTC between the DOD and universities.

As President Bollinger has pointed out “...the Department of Defense [DOD] has, for its own fiscal reasons, instituted a policy of aggregating small numbers of ROTC students in urban areas into pooled programs on a limited number of campuses.” He rightly suggests that even were Columbia open to an ROTC program, one might well not be established (“Statement Regarding ROTC and the Campus”, September 25, 2008). Budgetary constraints have indeed led to the consolidation of urban ROTC programs. They have also driven a shift towards large land-grant universities, where economies of scale mean that more officers are recruited at lower cost. There was also been a shift to smaller schools, mostly in the South and Midwest, at which military officials have also felt more at ease and which, in some cases, actively sought ROTC programs as they moved from the Northeast.

Resource limitations do not entirely account for the long-term thinning out of ROTC programs in large cities and the Northeast region. Many in the military are not at ease in urban settings, in part because the social composition of the officer corps has become less diverse and officials underestimate the potential of ROTC in large, heterogeneous cities. ROTC programs in urban areas and the Northeast were withdrawn, thinned out or consolidated after the end of conscription and Vietnam War. These trends continued in the 1980s and during the decade-long drawdown following the end of the Cold War. To illustrate: “There is no Army ROTC program in the Detroit area, with its large middle-class Muslim population, and only one in Miami and Chicago. In New York City, which produced more than 500 military officers a year in the 1950s and early 1960s, the two remaining ROTC programs last year yielded 34 Army officers” (Greg Jaffe, “A Retreat from Big Cities Hurts ROTC Recruiting”, Wall Street Journal, February 22, 2007, p. 1).

With a population of over 7,500,000 Virginia has twelve Army ROTC programs while New York City, with a population of about 8,500,000, has two. Alabama, with a student population a quarter of New York State’s, has ten programs compared with New York’s thirteen. The Navy has one NROTC program in New York and none in New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut, though the last three states have active duty naval installations. The Air Force has one program in New York City and Long Island, which have a larger population than North Carolina with its five Air Force programs and twice that of Alabama with four. (I draw most of these illustrations from material provided by Stephen Trynosky, currently a fellow at the Truman National Security Project). Overall, Southern states have recently produced about forty percent of all Army officers.

According to research by Victor P. Corona, currently writing a doctoral dissertation in Columbia’s Department of Sociology, “Of Army officers who received commissions in 1979-82, graduates of West Point and of ROTC scholarship programs each constituted between 30% and 40% of those who have since attained senior rank in the infantry. If the situation in other branches of the Army and the other services approximates this finding, ROTC scholarship programs produce a significant portion of the military’s top leadership.” ROTC programs are responsible for a large part of the military’s leadership elite. Responsible citizenship requires attention to the relationship between a democratic polity and its military.

The lingering, faded stereotype of “elitist” colleges that “ban” ROTC and “hate” the military obscures the military’s very large contribution to gap between the social imbalance in the recruitment and education of future officers. A passage from the history of the Army ROTC applies broadly to the other services:

...Abolition of ROTC at elite institutions along the eastern seaboard was more than offset, quantitatively at least, by the creation of additional detachments at state institutions in the South and West. The trend away from elite schools, however, worried some DoD officials. They feared that the average quality of ROTC students would drop and that the social balance of the Army officer corps would be upset... [Others] were glad to see the Army sever relations with the schools which, in their opinion had never been avid supporters of the military... (Arthur T. Coumbe and Lee S. Harford, US Army Cadet Command, extracts, p. 20, n.d., http://academic.udayton.edu/rotc/hist-rotc.htm accessed October 6, 2008).

Some in the military continue to view with resentment and suspicion the institutions from which ROTC programs departed four decades ago in highly inflamed circumstances.

Consider, illustratively a research report to the United States Army Accessions Command, “On Campus Market Potential Study: 2001-2007 Overview". It finds that “The more prestigious the school, the less chance that anyone in the student’s family had military experience. Since family military experience is linked to knowledge [of] and propensity [to enter ROTC], the higher the prestige of the university the more difficult to find those who would participate” (p. 7). Yet the top range of academic prestige examined in this report is far short of highly selective schools, of which Columbia is an instance,
The report contributes to a regional and cultural imbalance in the armed forces that is unhealthy for the relationship between a democratic polity and its military.

This research built on a base-line report -- “On-Campus Market Potential Study 2002 Edition” – that continues to influence policy. It recommends that ROTC’s recruitment focus on students who

...seek adventurous physical activity. They may have rafted canoed, rock climbed or sky dived. They would probably be first in line at a bungee jump. At an amusement park... [they] would probably seek out the most extreme rides (p. 92).

Of course, physical strength, dexterity and adventurousness are great virtues in themselves and vital resources in military service. Surely, intelligence, judgment and a well-rounded education are also valuable for military leadership, both for the complex military missions of today and future positions of command at the highest levels. This influential policy document stresses the former, without mention of the latter.

Military leadership has long been concerned to socially diversify the officer corps. It has been said that in no civilian institution do blacks exercise authority over whites to the extent they do in military service. Emerging military leaders are increasingly concerned that the social composition of the officer corps reflect the nation’s diversity and that officers acquire the cultural and intellectual resources required for the responsibilities of the future. Illustratively, West Point cadets in the academy’s Social Sciences Department spend three days each year in Jersey City meeting residents, including Muslims, Hindus and Egyptian Coptic Christians (Wall Street Journal, ibid.) However well-intentioned, such initiatives can hardly replace extended experiences of diverse cultures. Another illustration is the ROTC Language and Culture Program, which this year awarded grants for the study of “less commonly taught languages in college curricula.” This year and last grants went to twelve universities – eight in the South, four in the Midwest and West (DOD News Release 417-08, May 14, 2008 (http://www.defenselink.mil/releases/release.aspx?releaseid=11924 – accessed October 6, 2008). Columbia, despite its great strengths in non-western languages and cultures, cannot now contribute to righting this regional imbalance and to the education of future military leaders.

Columbia should take a central place among the “pooled programs on a limited number of campuses” to which President Bollinger has referred. There should be an official and institutionalized place for ROTC on this campus -- if not before DADT is reformed, then as soon as possible afterward. Today, an ROTC presence would not resemble that existing until 1969, a full-fledged NROTC program. Interested Columbia students are unlikely to approach in numbers of those who participated in the very different circumstances of decades past. In any case, ROTC program would not imply the “militarization” of the campus. Students in ROTC are not in military service until they are commissioned upon graduation. They are fellow-students, oriented towards military service as others are to law, business, medicine, teaching and other pursuits of civil society. These students should be more fully part of the Columbia community and their commitment should be reflected in ROTC’s institutional presence on campus.

To start with, this might consist of at least one officer to be a resource for Columbia students in ROTC programs and to form a part of the campus community. ROTC should be eager to provide sophisticated officers with strong academic qualifications. It enhances our campus culture to be in contact with the military profession as we are with the many pursuits of civilian society. Whatever our perspectives on the military, they will be more informed and authentic if we are in touch with qualified serving officers taking a proper role in campus life. America cannot afford the extent of mutual ignorance and stereotyping that presently exists between students at institutions like Columbia and the nation’s armed forces. The time is coming when Columbia must decide if it will help to solve this problem or to perpetuate it. Similarly, the government and the military must decide if they are willing to pay for a more diversified and educationally qualified officer corps and strive for a better cultural and regional balance among the military’s future leadership.

The strongest case for an ROTC presence at Columbia is based on a long historical view and a sense of civic obligation in the present historical moment. Unlike European historical experience, the United States enjoyed an “inheritance of free security.” Protected by vast oceans and not threatened on its borders, America had no large, standing military. In its three biggest wars -- the Civil War and two world wars – America created huge, temporary militaries of citizen-soldiers in which about 12% of the population served. In the Vietnam War the comparable figure was 4%. Today the figure is 1%. Conscription is a policy of the past, both for political and military reasons. When military service is neither broadly shared nor socially representative, we must guard against the military becoming isolated from the national society and, equally, against the isolation of civilian society from those who serve it under arms. Selective, private universities like Columbia, not legally obligated to have ROTC programs, are properly called upon to address this civic and educational responsibility.

That the military is voluntary and relatively small means that many citizens no longer face first hand, and in their personal circles of friends, family and neighbors, the military consequences of national policies. Current recruitment policies at both commissioned and non-commissioned ranks, tend to increase the proportion of serving military whose parents, close relatives and neighbors also served. It is not good for a democracy that smaller proportion of its population are concentrated in military service while others, particularly its professional and economic elites, pursue their lives at a personal and psychological distance from the nation’s armed forces.

At Columbia, how many Columbia students know fellow citizens in military service? How many have talked seriously with fellow students who are veterans or in an ROTC program? How many have a first-hand sense of one of the nation’s most important institutions? Columbia should seek to lessen the distance and incomprehension between its students, many of whom will become leaders in American society, and fellow citizens in military service. Shared experience with other students, both in agreement and controversy, is at the core of education for life. As matters stand, Columbia abets the most insulated tendencies in the military, contributing to a mutual incomprehension that damages the civic health of American democracy.

American social, professional and economic elites prefer to have other people’s children in military service. The egregious under-representation of the privileged and their children in the armed forces is a civic scandal. Today, when military service is voluntary, superior social position and prospects imply distance from the consequences of the nation’s strategic choices, be they wise or foolish. It is distasteful in a democracy that its social, professional and economic elite is so largely absent from the military which the American polity asks to serve it. Should Columbia adopt the same posture toward military service as do privileged elites and their institutions in general – namely, take a free ride, while cheering or deploring from a safe and vicarious distance? Or will it enter into an educational relationship with the military profession as it does with others?

Obvious and intrinsic differences between military and academic cultures encourage the righteousness with which some reject an ROTC program at Columbia. However, this position is not civically virtuous. Questions of war and peace, and of military enterprises of varying scope and substance, are central for the indefinite future. The clear distinctions between peace and war prevailing in the American past have eroded. For better or worse, America is likely over the long term to be in some kind of “war” while also remaining in some sort of “peace.” The nation requires broadly educated military leaders and, equally, citizens whose understanding of the military is based not in stereotypes but authentic knowledge.

Among reasons offered for rejecting ROTC are hatred of war and opposition to national policies. Hatred of war is a noble virtue but, principled pacifism apart, American citizenship requires serious engagement with military issues. There have been, and will be, “good wars” and “bad wars.” It is not appropriate for the university as an institution to endorse or oppose particular strategic choices. Rather, Columbia must decide if ROTC is properly among its enduring educational purposes – not temporarily during “bad” or “good” wars, but continuously. Military institutions are a central feature of the American polity and will continue to be so for an indefinite future. We may wish it otherwise, and as citizens we differ sharply on the nation’s strategic choices and the role of military force. These are urgent matters for public debate, but the question of ROTC bears on us in terms specific to the university.

As citizens, we are summoned to sound our voices on matters of war and peace, and listen to those of others. As students and faculty we have obligations distinctive to an academic community. Given Columbia’s place in the national academic system and in a great and diverse city, the quality and cultural variety of our students, and our intellectual and technical resources, we should feel obligated to welcome the return of ROTC. Site of a great upheaval during the receding 1960s, Columbia is well placed symbolically, superbly located geographically, and excellently equipped intellectually, to make this great educational and civic contribution to the nation.