The Movement to Restore ROTC at Columbia: Historical Background

By Sean Wilkes (CC/AROTC 06), Chairman, Advocates for Columbia ROTC
31 August 2006

The rise of the ROTC advocacy movement at Columbia began in the fall of 2001 and spring of 2002 following the September 11th attacks. The attacks brought to light a severe lack of understanding within the Columbia community for the nature of the military, both in its use as a foreign policy tool and the internal mechanisms by which it operates. The great amount of ignorance that was displayed by many otherwise well-educated people struck a nerve with many veterans and military family members, who felt that members of the Armed Forces were being misrepresented and portrayed in a very negative light. On campus, students formed an organization, Students United for Victory, in order to combat these views. At the same time, a campaign for a “Call to Service” was begun in order to encourage Columbia students not only to support the Armed Forces, but also to join the ranks as the leadership of our military. Columbia military alumni mobilized to appeal to the university administration. These efforts subsequently heralded the calls for the return of ROTC to Columbia after its 30 odd year hiatus. Starting in the fall of 2001, Eric Chen was one of the first to raise civil-military concerns and advocate for ROTC as a campus organizer and Columbia Spectator columnist.

Students United for Victory (SU4V), renamed Students United for America (SU4A) in the fall of 2002, led the charge for much of the first phase of the movement. After discussing the ROTC issue with alumnus Phil Bergovoy in the spring of 2002, Eric organized the first gathering of ROTC advocates and discussion of ROTC at the end of the semester (see April 28, 2002: Forum: Should ROTC Return to Columbia?). A number of USAF ROTC cadets who were also Columbia upperclassmen took part. In the fall of 2002, I began my Freshman Year at Columbia and enrolled in the Army ROTC program at Fordham. At the start of the semester, Eric wrote his second ROTC-related Spectator article (see September 17, 2002: Changing Times at Columbia), which attracted the attention of much of the campus community, including mine. We formed the Independent Committee for ROTC Advocacy (ICRA), the forerunner of Advocates for Columbia ROTC (ACR), which we created in order to expand ROTC advocacy beyond SU4A’s organizational constraints. Over a series of meetings, Eric and I outlined a short-term and long-term plan for the campaign to return ROTC to Columbia. The plan consisted of three main thrusts – the Students, the Administration/Institution, and the Alumni. The focus of the first thrust was an appeal to the student body - to educate them about ROTC and military service (e.g. the difference between Officer and Enlisted) and to spread the word about their ability to participate in the program through Fordham or Manhattan College. The second thrust on the Administration was broken down into a few areas - to find ways to improve quality of life for Cadets (such as granting “R” credit for courses, having knowledgeable advisors, etc), to find ways to better inform the student body via official channels (e.g., the website, and to explore the procedures and steps necessary to bring about the return of ROTC. The third thrust, targeting Alumni, focused on galvanizing them into action in order to bring about external pressure on the University and to establish a broader community of support for our efforts. The Alumni effort was taken on by Adm. Jim Lowe (CC/NROTC 51) and Mr. Phil Bergovoy (CC/NROTC 51), and soon after by Capt. Ted Graske (CC/NROTC 59).

Once Eric and I formulated a workable plan, we immediately moved to act, beginning with an aggressive advertising campaign. Also involved was Jennifer Thorpe, the President of SU4A and a dedicated proponent of ROTC. Other notable student ROTC advocates included Eric Gutman and Shane Hachey. Flyering was a heavily used technique early on and was very effective in making students aware of the issue. Weekly tabling on College Walk also raised awareness and facilitated new contacts. The Columbia Spectator was another means to bring ROTC to the popular front as the issue was broadly discussed in the opinion page of the newspaper. Pro-ROTC Spectator contributors included me, Eric Chen, Megan Romigh,  Jen Thorpe, Yoni Appelbaum, and Brian Wagner. (I encourage reading very thoroughly through the articles at, starting from 2002; they will provide a detailed overview of the progression of the ROTC campaign.) With the tabling, flyering and newspaper editorial campaign fully mobilized, we also organized a number of discussion and panel events to present our ideas to the student body in more formal settings. Student organizations such as the Columbia Political Union and College Republicans, led by SU4A, provided key support. Some events were more successful than others, but over-all attendance was generally substantial for a Columbia undergraduate group (generally between 20 and 40 attendees). We also presented the ROTC issue to the undergraduate student councils.

The Alumni thrust took more time to get going. Much of the first part of that thrust involved simply contacting them. Important initial contributors were, of course, Dr. Michael Segal, Admiral Jim Lowe, (Navy) Captain Ted Graske, and (Army) Colonel Jonathan Newmark, a graduate of Columbia’s medical school. The alumni supporter base has fluctuated over time, but is now stabilized under the leadership of Ted Graske and organized as the Columbia Alliance for ROTC (CAR). CAR produces the pro-ROTC newsletter, the Wounded Lion.

The Administration thrust took off in the spring of 2003. Student ROTC advocates met and consulted with a number of Deans and Assistant Deans. Initially, the most useful help came from Dean Colombo who indicated that the best way to gain the support of Student Affairs and the Administration was to demonstrate student support for the issue. After much planning and analysis, and consultation with members of the Columbia College Student Council (including now-USAF LT Robert Wray), we devised a plan to include a non-binding referendum in the student elections to gauge student opinion on the ROTC issue. The 2003 Columbia College Student Council elections had the highest turnout in years. The results of the referendum on ROTC turned out very much to our advantage, with 65% of students in favor of ROTC (see April 17, 2003: High Turnout Decides CC Student Council Election).

There was some trouble with the wording of the referendum, and we feel this should be explained. ICRA presented a list of possible questions for the referendum to David X. Cheng, the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs/Research and Planning, in the Office of Student Affairs. He is considered Columbia’s polling expert and his approval as an independent authority provided important legitimacy to the ROTC poll. Dean Cheng modified our questions and then submitted them to the CC Student Council. Rather than using our list of questions, however, the council decided to pick only one question and subsequently miscopied the question so that, rather than ask whether ROTC should return, it asked whether ROTC should be prohibited. It is a slight semantic difference, but it made a difference later when ROTC opponents argued that students were apathetic to or ignorant of the issue rather than displaying overt support for ROTC. Nevertheless, over-all, the results of the poll worked very much in our favor.

The following year, 2003-2004, ICRA was reorganized as the Advocates for Columbia ROTC. With proof of student support in hand, our efforts were focused on “working the system”, that is, finding administrative means and avenues to bring about institutional support for ROTC and the program’s eventual return to Columbia. Our first set of successful actions with the Administration resulted from our meetings with various Deans in the undergraduate colleges and Student Affairs. Two key people at the start of this phase were Dean of Academic Affairs Kathryn Yatrakis and Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, David Charlow. I met with Dean Yatrakis in order to explore ways in which cadets could be recognized officially for their participation in ROTC – an academic program that requires a great amount of time and effort. While academic credit would be impossible, since the program is not within the auspices of Columbia's administration and since it would not fit within any academic department, she suggested the possibility of using Registration Credit (or “R” credit) to note students’ participation on their transcripts. Subsequently, a proposal was written by ACR and sent to the Committee on Instruction through Dean Yatrakis. They convened a month later and approved our request. As a result, students may now submit R-credit forms and have their ROTC courses listed on their transcripts, though this form must be submitted each semester that the student participates in the program. The meeting with Dean Charlow focused on ways in which the Financial Aid department might be able to display information about ROTC to prospective students, particularly those with ROTC 4-year scholarships who may be considering applying to Columbia. We wanted to counter the widely held misconception that one could not participate in ROTC if one attended Columbia. After much discussion, Dean Charlow and his department agreed to display a note about the availability of local ROTC programs in the on-line Financial Aid FAQ and in the Columbia viewbook, and to assist us in publishing a small informational website detailing these programs and their contact information (

Over the course of the next few months we were able to meet with a number of Columbia officials, including Dean Zvi Galil at SEAS and Dean Austin Quigley of the College, to discuss ROTC, until the coup de grâce in December of 2003, when we were granted an audience with President Lee Bollinger. The meeting lasted perhaps a half an hour and was attended by Jen Thorpe, as President of SU4A, and me, as Chairman of ACR. We presented to him our proposal for the return of ROTC, the reasoning behind our efforts, and evidence of the vast amount of support that had been accrued through our grass-roots campaign. President Bollinger took note of the evidence of support, to say the least, and was interested in seeing the issue explored further. He explained to us that he felt it would not be appropriate for his office to make a determination on the issue, since the University Senate instituted the ban on ROTC during the Senate’s inception in the late 1960s; therefore, the responsibility and authority fell to the Senate to revoke the ban. President Bollinger did, however, put his full weight into granting us the resources of the Senate office and its Secretary, Mr. Tom Mathewson, in order to bring this issue to the Senate’s attention. We met with Mr. Mathewson that day, and with his help, we were able to contact the various Senate committees to notify them of our intent and to request to meet with them. While Mr. Mathewson remains a neutral party, as his position requires, he is very helpful and very knowledgeable on the history of the Senate and the history of ROTC’s downfall at Columbia, and has often gone out of his way to grant us assistance. The Student Affairs Committee and Executive Committee were our two primary administrative avenues, the latter led by Professor Paul Duby of SEAS who to this day remains a staunch supporter of ROTC. Professor Eugene Galanter, a decorated WWII vet, is also a member of the Executive Committee and also has been a strong supporter of our efforts. Professor Michael Adler, another university senator, provided support as well.

We presented the Senate committees with an extensive and well-researched written proposal for the return of ROTC to Columbia University ( This proposal garnered the support of a number of faculty members and students. We continued to meet with the Student Affairs Committee, which agreed to propose the establishment of a special task force to study the issue. On March 26, 2004, their resolution was presented to the University Senate and approved (see and April 1, 2004 “Possible Return of ROTC to Campus Sparks Controversy”). The members of the task force were appointed later that spring in a somewhat politically charged process. It was eventually decided that the task force would consist of six students, five faculty members, and one alumni representative. I was selected as one of the student members. The ROTC Task Force began its deliberations in the fall of 2004.

The Task Force deliberations were long and arduous with much of the initial focus on researching the issue on a variety of fronts. Problems that were subsequently presented included the potential need to appoint an officer as a “Professor” or “Assistant Professor” (later shot down by the Princeton example, where the Professor of Military Science holds the official title of “Director of Military Training” rather than “Professor”), the various costs of instituting the program (again shot down, the only costs would be the small amount of office space needed, and this would be overshadowed by the immense amount of scholarship money brought in per contracted cadet), the inability of students to leave the program if they so choose (again shot down, since ROTC can be tried out for two years, and even 4-year scholarship recipients can quit the program after one year), the necessity of providing credit for a program that is outside the direct control of the University (again shot down via the Princeton example, where students do not receive academic credit), and the incompatibility of military training with an academic institution (arising out of ignorance about officer education). The main problem area was, of course, the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy arising out of 10 USC 654. DADT ended up as the focus of much of the debate, though interestingly not until late in the Task Force proceedings. The members of the Task Force deliberated for a number of months and presented one interim report to the Senate. They sought the views of the Columbia community by holding a town hall meeting on February 15, which was attended by many ROTC supporters, and by inviting e-mail submissions to the task force, at rotc-taskforce @ They collected ROTC-related e-mails in two batches, one set received between February 9 and 24 and the second between February 25 and March 28. ROTC advocates who joined the ROTC campaign in the spring of 2005 included Professor Allan Silver, Professor Jim Applegate (co-chair of the ROTC Task Force), Lt Col Stephen Brozak (GS 82), and students Scott Stewart and Matt Sanchez.

Immediately after the conclusion of the Task Force deliberations, opponents of ROTC held an anti-ROTC “teach in” that included anti-military Columbia professors and counter-recruiters invited from outside Columbia. The teach-in was organized by Law Professor, and ROTC Task Force member, Kendall Thomas and held in the Law School (see April 6, 2005: Panel Examines ROTC Conflict: Clash Between CU Non-Discrimination Policy And Military's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Stressed). Thereafter, ROTC advocates and opponents carried out competing public relations campaigns meant to influence the Senate vote on ROTC. Both sides utilized heavy flyering and the Spectator opinion page. Opponents of ROTC tabled on College Walk. Debates took place in various campus forums, such as Teachers College, Journalism and Barnard. The Senate devoted a special meeting entirely to the subject of ROTC on April 15, 2005, which unfortunately, was poorly attended. (Other Senate discussions of ROTC and the work of the Task Force over the past year are recorded in minutes of the following meetings: March 26, 2004, April 30, 2004, January 28, 2005 and February 25, 2005.) Following the April 6 anti-ROTC teach-in, multiple requests were made by student and faculty ROTC advocates to hold a formal debate in the Law School in order to provide a balanced discussion to the Columbia community. After repeated rejections by the opponents of ROTC, we held our own panel event, Advocates for Columbia ROTC hearing: Perspectives on the Future of ROTC at Columbia on April 25, 2005. The panel included students, alumni and professors, and included an anti-ROTC professor, Lewis Cole, who had spoken at the April 6 teach-in. Substantial support for the event was provided by the Military in Business Association, a business school veterans group. On the same day, April 25, the ROTC Task Force submitted a resolution on ROTC to the Senate Executive Committee, which then substituted its own resolution, which was intended to offer the Senate a clear, unambiguous choice. The Executive Committee resolution called for the establishment of an ROTC program on campus "as soon as is practicable".

At the May 6 plenary meeting, the Senate decided to conduct a record vote (with signed ballots) on the Executive Committee resolution. The ROTC proposal was defeated 53-10, with 5 abstentions. The ROTC advocates present at the Senate vote observed that the majority of the Senate seemed to have a limited understanding of the issues surrounding the ROTC debate. Statements by university senators revealed they had failed to seriously engage the ACR Case for ROTC at Columbia. As a possible indication of the actual degree of opposition to ROTC within the Senate on May 6, two votes to postpone the final vote on ROTC were conducted, the second of which required President Bollinger to cast a tie-breaking vote.

While the defeat of the ROTC proposal in the Senate was disappointing, the deliberations of the Task Force have, as expected, proven to be essential for building support among faculty and administrators for improving relations with the ROTC programs at Fordham University and Manhattan College. The Task Force recommended developing stronger ties with existing area ROTC programs in lieu of instituting a native program at Columbia. For a more detailed account of Senate deliberations on ROTC, see the May 5, 2005 final report of the task force.

Since the Senate vote, we have regrouped to study the situation and formulate new strategies. Over the course of the 2005-2006 year, the ROTC issue continued to be analyzed at lower levels and remained a topic for student discussion in many organizations on campus. In the spring of 2006, the US Military Veterans of Columbia University (MilVets) under MilVets President Oscar Escano, working with ROTC cadets, led a successful campaign to amend the university discrimination policy with the addition of “military status” as a protected category (see March 24, 2006: Discrimination Policy Amended: New Policy Wording Adds Military Status to Protected Group List). The Columbia cadets and officer candidates group, the Columbia Military Society, was renamed Hamilton Society under group president Mark Xue, in honor of Columbia military alumnus Alexander Hamilton. On March 24, 2006, the Columbia Spectator published its 4th consecutive staff editorial in favor of ROTC. Also, during this period, the Supreme Court upheld the Solomon Amendment (Supreme Court Upholds Solomon Amendment), which had been challenged by FAIR, an association of American Law Schools that included Harvard Law and Columbia Law (see This national event was a boon to our efforts, though unfortunately late in coming. It has been speculated that the upcoming Supreme Court vote motivated President Bollinger to resolve the ROTC issue in the spring of 2005 rather than risk the Senate vote occurring in the same time period as the Supreme Court decision. On May 19, 2006, an Air Force ROTC commissioning ceremony was held in the rotunda of Low Library. It was the first officer commissioning to take place at Columbia in over 30 years, and came about as a result of close cooperation between the Administration, alumni ROTC advocates and graduating cadets.

In the summer of 2006, three leaders of the 1st stage, Eric Chen, Shane Hachey and I, sat down together to develop a basic strategy paper that outlines the next steps. Borrowing from Winston Churchill, the May 6, 2005 Senate vote on ROTC was not the end nor was it the beginning of the end. It was merely the end of the beginning. As of the writing of this history, our teammates in the movement together with our successors on campus are moving forward to carry out new strategies for the 2nd stage of the movement.

Eric Chen edited and contributed content to this document.