October 27, 2014

Student group looks to restart ROTC on campus

Three times a week, second-year Sarah Starr travels downtown and receives an education completely different from her University experience. She alternates between doing physical conditioning, learning to write operation orders, practicing reconnaissance, and conducting battle drills—all in preparation for a career on the front lines.

Starr is an Army cadet in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). Currently, University students can participate in ROTC off-campus through programs at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Few choose to do so—Starr is one of just two cadets at UChicago. However, an organization called UChicago Students for ROTC Reform is hoping to change those numbers. Over the past few weeks the group, composed of seven to eight core student members, has been raising awareness and gauging student interest for the formation of an ROTC chapter on campus. They hope to bring the program to campus by next year, though nothing has been decided yet.

According to fourth-year William Fernandez, a leader of the group, UChicago Students for ROTC Reform is trying to address a historical concern about ROTC: a lack of student interest. The University had an ROTC chapter that opened during World War I, but very few students took part, according to John Boyer’s monograph Judson’s War and Hutchins’s Peace: The University of Chicago and War in the Twentieth Century. Because of this low turnout, the war department shut down the chapter in 1936.

Both Starr and Fernandez think this is no longer an issue today.

“It’s just that a lot of people don’t know that ROTC’s around,” Starr said. “Just in terms of the fact that we don’t have a traditional ROTC program, and we don’t have a program on campus, a lot of people do feel like that’s an obstacle and don’t know how to get started.”

Fernandez said UChicago Students for ROTC Reform has found around 20 to 30 students who already have plans to enter the military or would be interested if ROTC were available here. This number, Fernandez said, could be even higher, as an on-campus ROTC chapter could draw prospective students.

“We want to make sure ROTC is an option, especially for students who have already identified it as an option, and also for students who are thinking of other institutions that may already have ROTC, and this might become a deal breaker for them,” Fernandez said.

There are many logistical issues to work out before a chapter could form, Fernandez said. The University would have to figure out how to fund the program and how to incorporate the necessary military science courses. The recently reinstated ROTC programs at peer institutions such as Harvard and Yale could provide a blueprint for the University, especially when it comes to incorporating military courses into the curriculum.

Because there is no on-campus ROTC, Fernandez said that many military-minded University students have found alternate ways to get trained. For example, Fernandez plans to take part in an Officer Candidate School program, a six-week training after graduation that will prepare him for a career in the Navy.

Lieutenant Colonel Luke Meyers, professor of military science at UIC’s Army ROTC program, said that the program develops leadership qualities that are valuable in any career. Meyers also emphasized that students enrolled in ROTC can take on military duties other than ground combat.

Another potential appeal of ROTC programs is that they offer significant financial benefits for participants.

“The military gives incredible benefits for students who then decide to go into the officer ranks after ROTC, and helps them pay for [their] college education…. As we all know, costs have risen dramatically over the past decade,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez feels that the University does not currently offer enough opportunities for students interested in military service.

“With an elite institution comes elite opportunities for you to engage fully in your community and your democracy; there are really incredible ways to get involved civically on campus,” Fernandez said. “But in terms of military service, there really isn’t a group out there.”

Starr added that UChicago students tend to have traits that would make them especially strong cadets.

“The military is downsizing, and they’re not looking to take anybody. They’re not looking to take anybody from any school. They’re looking for the cream of the crop, and that’s what we have at UChicago.”