On May 6th, the Columbia University Senate was presented with a resolution to return the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps to Columbia’s campus for the first time since 1969, when students protesting the Vietnam War convinced the school to remove ROTC. Columbia’s relationship with our nation’s military constitutes a legacy dating back to Alexander Hamilton, one that was strong during both world wars, and one that would certainly be of value to our country in a post-9/11 world. Unfortunately, the Senate voted 53-10 to keep ROTC off Columbia’s campus, and in doing so helped to perpetuate the civil-military gap that is so prevalent at elite universities.
The last several years have seen a reevaluation of the military at schools like Columbia. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was a transformation on this campus as many people, students and faculty alike, recognized the value and necessity of a strong military for the first time since Vietnam. For all the varied and sometimes legitimate academic criticisms regarding American military policy, there was a realization that sometimes the only thing protecting our nation is a strong fighting force. The war in Afghanistan reacquainted Columbians with the idea of a just war, and it was in this climate that a group of us decided that it was time to return ROTC to our campus.
Currently, Columbia students who train for military service have to pursue their extra classes and training at other local universities that have ROTC, such as Fordham. But the past few years have been ripe for change. Contrary to many people’s perceptions, a campus poll in 2003 found that 65% of Columbia College students were in favor of bringing ROTC back to campus. Also in 2003, several student groups organized a well-attended “Support The Troops” rally. It turns out that the groups making most of the anti-military noise on campus represent a small, vocal minority.
Why does ROTC work at other area universities and not Columbia? Part of it is related to Columbia’s history of social and political activism. Columbia is in a unique position because of its Vietnam-era decision to kick ROTC off campus, a decision that was the result of the administration caving to the demands of an angry, leftist minority, not unlike our present situation. Other schools have not faced the turmoil of returning ROTC because they never saw fit to remove it in the first place. To a large degree, the distaste for the military amongst Columbia students also boils down to simple intellectual snobbery: many of these students quite simply look down on the military, and see themselves and their university as too good to sully by any association with our armed forces. This is the legacy of sheltered lives and private schools, with the progeny of the upper class learning from their parents how superior they are to the “ignorant masses” who serve our country.
This year the university senate appointed a ten-member task force to evaluate the viability of a return of ROTC. The task force split 5-5 on whether or not to recommend bringing ROTC back next year. The sticking point was disagreement over the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy concerning gay and lesbian soldiers and its inconsistency with Columbia’s non-discrimination policy. While the entire task force agreed that DADT is bad for national security as well as morally wrong, half of the task force thought that a compromise could be reached in the interest of bridging the gap between Columbia and the military and of helping some of our country’s best-educated students become leaders in our armed forces. It was noted that other comparable universities such as Princeton, MIT, and U Penn have ROTC on their campuses and have been able to reconcile the program with their non-discrimination policies. Additionally, it was recommended that, upon the return of ROTC, Columbia cover the cost for gay and lesbian students who do not finish their service and would be obligated to repay scholarship money they receive from the military.
Despite these options, the university senate on May 6th chose to perpetuate both the divide between Columbia and the armed forces and the anti-military legacy of the 60’s. It was almost a show trial atmosphere, with the back rows lined with jeering members of Columbia’s socialist organizations. The discussion was decidedly unsophisticated, and most senate members appeared not to have thought the issues through ahead of time. One senator who had the courage to fully and publicly support ROTC recalled how most of the emails he received started by invoking DADT, but soon devolved into screeds against President Bush and against the military in general, demonstrating that concerns about discrimination were largely a façade for other political goals and antagonisms. He also pointed out that no one at Columbia was complaining about the military as fighter jets passed over Manhattan and National Guard soldiers walked the streets in the aftermath of 9/11. He was loudly booed and hissed down while President Bollinger sat and watched. Considering the current necessity of intelligent military leadership and the gap of understanding that separates Columbia students from service-men and –women, it was unfortunate that the university senate, bowing to political and emotional pressure, voted to maintain this gap and keep its elite distance from the military.