The Case for ROTC at Columbia

James H. Applegate
Professor of Astronomy, Columbia University
Co-Chair, Columbia University Senate Task Force on ROTC
May 1, 2005

The armed forces of the United States of America are an essential, permanent, and unique part of American society. From its creation, the U.S. military has been subject to civilian control. It is founded on the idea that military service is a reasonable demand for a democratic society to impose on its citizens, and that the Nation is best off if defended by citizen-soldiers. The ideal of the citizen-soldier has eroded deeply since the Vietnam war, and the idea that the maintenance of our Armed Forces is the collective responsibility of all Americans has been all but forgotten. The civilian-military gap is now so deep and wide at a university like Columbia that the two sides hardly recognize each other.

It is in this context that a group of students and alumni have proposed the return of ROTC to Columbia. I have studied their proposal carefully and support it. I urge you to consider the proposal with care.  In my view the arguments against ROTC come quickly and arise from our looking inward and seeing Columbia in isolation. The arguments in favor of ROTC come more slowly and arise from our looking outward and seeing Columbia in its proper role in our Country and the world.

The world in which we live is a more complex place than it was during the Cold War, and the role of our military is correspondingly more complex and subtle. From peacekeeping missions to relief operations to local wars, America's military leaders need to be well educated in the history, culture, politics, and sensibilities of the world's diverse population in order to do their jobs and to represent our Nation abroad. The better educated America's military leaders are, the better off America and the world will be. Columbia educates leaders in many fields of human endeavor. Columbia can and should play its part in educating America's military leaders.  The establishment of an ROTC program at Columbia is an important step in Columbia playing its role, and in helping those Columbia students who wish to serve our Country in the armed forces in being able to do so.

The University must insist on certain conditions if ROTC is to return. Columbia must retain the right to award or deny academic credit for ROTC courses. These decisions should be made by the appropriate Committees on Instruction. Columbia must retain control of all titles at Columbia. The officers who teach ROTC courses here should receive titles that are appropriate for their level of education and professional accomplishment as judged by Columbia's criteria. In addition, the University must retain control of its physical space and other resources.

The opponents of returning ROTC to Columbia base their arguments on the University's nondiscrimination policy. This policy must be understood in the proper context.

The purpose of the University is the education of its students, and the creation of new knowledge through scholarship and research. The values which sustain us in this endeavor are the freedom of speech and of inquiry, the right to express one's views in a forceful but respectful manner and the obligation to respect the right of others to do the same, openness and honesty in our inquiry and teaching. Collectively, this is what we call academic freedom. This is what we are about.

The University has developed policies which sustain us in what we do.  These are important policies, but secondary to the core values expressed in academic freedom. Our policies on admission and financial aid are very important because they determine who the students are, but they do not define us. Need-blind admissions is very important to Columbia College, but it does not define the College. The University's nondiscrimination policy should be understood as one of these supporting policies, not as a defining one.

We should not read Columbia's nondiscrimination policy as literally as the opponents of ROTC would have us read it. For example, our policy states that we do not discriminate on the basis of race in admissions. We certainly do use race as one factor among many in admissions, and President Bollinger successfully argued for our right to continue to do so before the Supreme Court two summers ago. The literal reading of the nondiscrimination policy the opponents of ROTC would impose on us would justify the position of those who oppose using race as a factor in admissions and forbid us from doing so.

Bringing ROTC to Columbia would expand and make more visible on campus a program and career path that, for practical purposes, is open to some Columbia students but not others for reasons the community finds to be discrimination. The opponents of ROTC argue the armed forces are "just another discriminating employer," and should be excluded from campus for this reason. I cannot think of more powerful evidence of the erosion of the idea that the maintenance of our Armed Forces is the collective responsibility of all Americans, or demonstration of the depth and breadth of the civilian-military gap at Columbia than the fact that this statement is made so frequently and has gone unchallenged for so long.

Columbia's nondiscrimination policy is important, but the burden of proof is very much on those who would use it to justify Columbia's avoiding a collective responsibility. The standard of proof is very high, and I do not believe that their arguments rise to it.

The ten members of the Task Force are united in their opposition to DADT, which we believe to be bad policy and fundamentally wrong. We do not disagree on issues of principle. We do disagree on strategy and tactics.  The five of us who voted for the immediate return of ROTC argue that our most effective way of abolishing DADT is to engage the issue and do what a university does best - teaching. We argue that, by far, the most powerful agent of change we can provide is Columbia-educated leaders for the military.  Our opponents argue that the University should withdraw from the issue and boycott the military until DADT is abolished. They argue that this is a moral high ground. We argue that they are avoiding the issue. You cannot affect change without engaging an issue. Universities are vital when they educate and irrelevant when they boycott.

The opponents of ROTC argue that the establishment of an ROTC program at Columbia is equivalent to an institutional endorsement of DADT by Columbia. This is false. The University does not and should not support or oppose political statements or causes with Its affiliations.  A Columbia ROTC program is no more a Columbia endorsement of DADT than is Columbia's welcoming of students and scholars from a foreign nation a Columbia endorsement of the form of government, foreign policy, or human rights record of that nation.

One of the key lessons Americans collectively learned from the Vietnam experience is that it is a tragic mistake to confuse the military with the uses to which it is put by our civilian leaders.  Those who argue that support for ROTC is support for the Iraq war have failed to learn this important lesson.  In addition, some argue that bringing ROTC to Columbia would politicize the campus.  This is probably true, but it a development we should not fear, but embrace.  A continuing debate about the the relationship between the individual and the state, and about the proper role of the military in a democratic society is something that a university should welcome.

Shunning the military is a choice that a private university is free to make.  It is not a choice that Americans collectively are free to make.  It is a choice that Columbia should not make.  It is time to welcome ROTC back to Columbia.