Alumni, Students Want to Revive ROTC on a Campus Where it Has Been Banned Since 1969

Staff Reporter of the Sun

This article ran on the front page on Friday, April 26, 2002.  

Hoping for a boost from post-Sept. 11 patriotism, a group of Columbia University alumni and students will begin a campaign this weekend to bring the Reserve Officers' Training Corps back to campus.

Columbia's faculty banned ROTC from the campus in 1969, when many schools banned the program to express opposition to the Vietnam War, and it has not revisited the issue since. A handful of Columbia students get government-funded ROTC scholarships for participating elsewhere, but they are not permitted to drill or take ROTC classes on campus and do not receive academic credit for their participation. 

The Columbia effort is just beginning - a forum this Sunday is the first event in the campaign - but the drive may lead to the largest-scale debate over the military's role on the Columbia campus since 1969. Although Columbia's ROTC policy has not been challenged for decades, the terrorist attacks have some Columbia affiliates hoping a popular war could undo the damage done by an unpopular one to the military's role on campus. A newly formed patriotic club, Students United for Victory, and a new alumni group, Columbia Alumni for a Strong America, are leading the Columbia campaign.

"We'd like to bring a total military presence to the campus, because in my humble opinion, the stronger we are the better off we are," said Philip Bergovoy, an alumni organizer of the effort who graduated from Columbia in 1950 and served in a Navy ROTC unit, then in the Marines. Students interested in Navy ROTC now would have to participate though the State University of New York Maritime College in the Bronx.

The nation's military officers, Mr. Bergovoy says, have to come from somewhere. "I'd rather see them from Columbia U. than from Redneck U.," he said.

Organizers of the effort expect opposition. A group called People for Peace was formed after Sept. 11 to protest military action in Afghanistan, and a sophomore member of that group, Laura Durkay, said the group would also oppose ROTC's return. She said the military's scholarship program - often attractive to poorer students - has the effect of encouraging those students to fight wars they wouldn't fight in without financial incentives. "I think a university is a place you come to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. It's not a place you should go to get military training," she said. "Columbia has a great tradition of resisting militarism going back to the 1930s. That definitely continues today."

Since very few students participate in Columbia's ROTC program, it is unlikely that ROTC classes would be held at Columbia even if the faculty welcomed the program back. 

Three students participate in the Army ROTC program at Fordham University, according to its commander, and about ten participate in the Air Force ROTC program at Manhattan College, according to a cadet in that program.

But ROTC backers said they believed the military would draw more recruits if they were allowed back on campus. ROTC recruiters complain they don't get the same access to career fairs and open houses as other groups, though a Columbia spokeswoman, Suzanne Trimmel, said they are welcome at such events. ROTC recruiters would also like to be able to distribute information about their scholarship program through mailings from the athletics, admissions and financial aid offices.

"Directly related to the current numbers we have now is the inconvenience and the lack of presence on campus," said an army veteran and Columbia freshman involved with Students for Victory, Eric Chen. "Right now, the military is just not on people's minds as an option."

Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, and Stanford Universities have similar bans on ROTC programs. A Harvard group dedicated to bringing ROTC back, founded in 1988, has met with limited success. In 1995, the faculty voted to stop paying cadets' training costs because of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays. But Dr. Michael Segal, a Harvard graduate active in Advocates for Harvard ROTC, said the group has helped make ROTC cadets feel more welcome on campus. They've paired ROTC cadets with mid-career military mentors studying at the Kennedy School of Government, and tried to sway student opinion in favor of their program. 

And recently, they've heard encouraging words from Harvard's new president, Lawrence Summers, who has written ROTC cadets to express his appreciation for their service, warned that coastal elites have become isolated from mainstream values since the Vietnam War, and made speeches to alumni and students arguing the military deserves more respect.

Organizers of this weekend's event are hoping that Lee Bollinger, Columbia's incoming president, will give their cause a similar boost. Mr. Bergovoy said he's been writing four or five letters a year to the outgoing university president, George Rupp, asking him to reconsider ROTC's presence, to no avail. But the University of Michigan, where Mr. Bollinger served as president, does have a ROTC program, and its cadets train in university buildings. "He seems like more of a regular guy," Mr. Bergovoy said.

Planners of this Sunday's rally said this will be just the first step in a long campaign. They hope to pitch their ideas to Mr. Bollinger, or even put the issue to a vote of the student body.

What would be the result? A freshman ROTC cadet, Jarrod Stuard, said he'd heard nothing but positive reactions from fellow students to his participation in the Air Force program. And Mr. Chen, the Army veteran, said he thought most students were more ignorant of the military than opposed to it.

The president of the Columbia College Student Council, Michael J. Novielli, said it was too early to tell what students would decide in a vote. "It's definitely something we should think about," he said. "I don't think there's one uniform opinion on this issue."

Mr. Bergovoy said he'd be willing to take that risk. "If they vote it down, they deserve what they get," he said.

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