Ladies and Gentlemen of the ROTC Task Force,

I served for 4 years in the United States Army as an enlisted soldier in the Military Intelligence Corps, for the most part in the United States Forces - Korea (USFK) helping to defend the Republic of Korea. If you wish, I can discuss my experiences as an enlisted soldier with ROTC-trained officers, working in a gender-mixed field, serving in a foreign country and as a Taiwanese American in the Army.

In this letter, I wish to discuss ROTC in relation to Columbia’s non-discrimination policy.


Any fair discussion about ROTC’s place at Columbia must begin with two general agreements:

First, we must agree that the American military has an indispensable role in our nation’s affairs. Even in relatively peaceful periods, the military is busy with missions such as peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, disaster relief (for example, the US armed forces have a leading role in the SE Asian tsunami relief), national obligations in areas such as Korea and Europe, and the eternal mission of defending the nation and the American people. When freed from the necessities of war, the military may even be characterized as the busiest and most effective community service organization in the world. Selfless service is not a concept taken lightly in the military. I can attest to the military’s community focus as an active participant in the United States and Korea. From the youngest Army Private to the highest-ranking General, our military men and women and the uniform they wear are recognized throughout the world as ambassadors of the American people.

Second, we must agree that Columbia carries a special responsibility in our society. The university is entrusted with setting the standard for our society’s moral, ethical and social development. Columbia’s graduates are expected to build a better nation, fight inequality, and uphold the good of the people. As a premiere leadership institution, Columbia has a duty to produce the leaders of our generation for all areas of society, including the military.

The Non-Discrimination Policy

In nurturing the unique social and political experiment we call America, we understand that Diversity is our nation’s great strength. In that light, Columbia’s non-discrimination policy serves as the vessel for an essential ideal – that of Inclusion. By maintaining an affiliation with a women’s college and, to a lesser degree, other institutions that contradict the university’s non-discrimination policy, we further recognize that the ideals of Diversity and Inclusion must be upheld even when they conflict with the restricted, imperfect form of the non-discrimination policy. We understand that we surrender Diversity and Inclusion when the policy is upheld over the ideal. Sadly, that has happened with ROTC. By excluding the military since 1969, Columbia has traded the ideal of Inclusion for its nemesis, Exclusion. Discrimination has thereby become a sanctioned value in Columbia’s education. Institutional discrimination of the military cannot fight discrimination of any group, including the gay community. Columbia’s current misuse of the non-discrimination policy can only project social division and discrimination as values to be emulated in society.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Federal Law

Although it can be justified as a compromise to protect gays serving in the military, I refuse to defend the “don’t ask, don’t tell” federal law (hereafter referred to as DADT). I disagree with the law because I believe military service is the cultural embodiment of the core citizenship values of Service and Duty. Those values should embrace all Americans -- man or woman, rich or poor, majority or minority, gay or straight. Our government has implied with this law that sexual preference is more important than the values that bind us as citizens. I cannot accept that, as an American and as a proud veteran. For the same reason, it is wrong for Columbia to exclude ROTC over DADT. By doing so, the university fails to uphold the core citizenship values of Service and Duty, and exacerbates the damage caused by a poorly rendered law.

The Failure of Columbia’s Protest

In practice, Columbia’s protest of DADT has helped no one and harmed many. Politically, the protest has no leverage; Columbia removed its ROTC program under shameful circumstances decades before the DADT controversy. Many of the military’s proponents were convinced years ago that it was Columbia that had broken the Social Contract, long before DADT became an issue. In short, Columbia’s rejection of ROTC removed any realistic platform to criticize the military’s policies.

The gay community has suffered from Columbia’s stance against ROTC. By using gay students as the self-serving reason to explain the reactionary exclusion of ROTC, Columbia has compounded an unjust act by also painting the gay community as anti-military, an unfair stereotype that further divides the gay community from the mainstream.

Furthermore, the protest is misdirected. ROTC and cadets can’t change the law. Only elected officials have that power. Thus, Columbia’s ban on ROTC has made no impact on DADT while simultaneously keeping Columbians away from military service. The military community has lost Columbia-educated leaders while the Columbia student body has been deprived of an on-campus military resource, a full palette of academic options and career choices, and military values and perspectives. The rare cadets who persevere in pursuing a military career at Columbia find that they must overcome an unsupportive environment and the separate and unequal status for ROTC practiced by the university.

Rather than lessen discrimination with its ROTC policy, Columbia has actually given institutional sanction to ignorance, negative stereotyping and outright prejudice. Students’ opinions, as well as wider attitudes about the military in society, have thus been shaped. As a result of Columbia’s position, members of the privileged classes have felt justified in rejecting military service and passing the societal responsibility of national defense almost exclusively onto the working classes. Underprivileged students planning to use ROTC scholarships to fund their education choose to go elsewhere for their education, thus denying Columbia an important source of student diversity and the opportunity to educate the military’s leadership.

Gays serving in the military suffer the most from Columbia’s stance. They are hurt by Columbia’s refusal to realistically address their plight and maligned as soldiers by the negative stereotypes of the military fostered by Columbia, all while persevering to honorably serve their country in spite of DADT.

Current events and modern necessities have only made more poignant Columbia’s poor relation to the military. While we debate this issue, national and international institutions are transforming under the stresses of global transition. Our children’s history is being shaped, with our military at the heart of change, yet Columbia finds itself marginalized in that process. Without an ROTC, the university has failed to contribute to the military’s leadership at a time when the American people, as well as many people around the world, are relying on our military to succeed. Meanwhile, Columbia graduates who are called upon to relate to and work with the military are forced to overcome an inadequate educational preparation.

Thirty-five years ago, Columbia made a grievous mistake by rejecting ROTC. Columbia’s continued exclusion of ROTC has hurt students and the military, removed the benefits of ROTC from our campus, instilled harmful values in the Columbia education, retarded social progress and misled the gay community. Fortunately, there is a better way that helps the people, improves the quality of the university and revitalizes Columbia’s mandate to advance the public good.

The Better Solution

The restoration of ROTC at Columbia will open many positive benefits. The return of ROTC will infuse military perspectives and help the student body learn a balanced view of the military and soldiers, and their role in society. New academic options and career choices will be made available to students. Military perspectives and values will enhance Columbia’s marketplace of ideas. ROTC scholarships will be a viable option to finance students’ educations. A native cadet population will diversify and enrich the Columbia community. Class disparities will diminish both in the military, as more privileged citizens embrace military service, and at Columbia, as more underprivileged students will have the means to attend the university. The American people will rebuild their faith in Columbia as a leadership institution that embodies the civic values of nation building, service, duty and the greater good.

For critics of DADT, the return of ROTC and the closure of Columbia’s anti-military reputation will restore a realistic platform for Columbia to address the law. Columbia will be able to lobby for change in the political arena while working directly with the military to teach its future leaders. Best of all, the over-due end of Columbia’s divisive and useless policy against ROTC will help the gay community dispel the unfair stereotype that gays are anti-military.


At this crossroads in our history, we must choose: are we an “Ivory Tower" disconnected from the needs of society, divorced from nation and people, and only good for insular thinking and selfish pursuits? Or, are we truly America’s producer of vanguard leaders who pursue integration, diversity, the greater good and the improvement of all parts of our society, including the military?

The challenge of our time demands the best leaders from our generation. As Dr. Martin Luther King said in another time of pressing need in American history:

“Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

At Columbia, it is again time to stand with a greater determination, for the sake of our people, our country and our world. If our government has been wrong by discouraging gays from serving in the military - and I believe it has been - then let us show America the right way. Allow Columbia to teach our government and the American people a higher standard of Diversity and Inclusion by embracing ROTC and our civic duties. Set us free so we can lead the way.

The decision we make for the restoration of ROTC is about more than just ROTC. We are shaping our generation’s vision of Columbia University and, thus, our value to society.


Eric Chen
GS 06
elc2003 at columbia dot edu

Columbia Group Columbia Coverage Advocates for ROTC Home Page