June 1, 2007

ROTC bans counterproductive to their cause

It is graduation season again and at ceremonies all over the country, graduation speakers are offering up life lessons. One theme sure to make more than a few appearances is the importance of public service. Particularly after 9/11, it has become something of a fad for speakers to extol the virtues of giving back, conjuring images of men whose greatness we will remember because of their service to this country.

Sadly, though, this lesson seems to be lost on university administrations across the country.

It has been nearly three decades since Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) was expelled from campuses all over the U.S. and every decade there seems to be a new reason to keep it off. Initially it was the ongoing Vietnam War, then it was the fact that the Vietnam War had happened in the first place, and now that no one cares about Vietnam anymore, it is the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

I will concede that there was definitely a time when, at the height of the Vietnam War, it made sense for universities to try to raise the cost associated with conducting the war by banning ROTC programs. But keeping ROTC off campus as a response to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” both illogical and counterproductive. In fact, bringing ROTC back to campuses should be about changing the military for the better.

No matter how you look at it, the decision for America’s elite universities to maintain their ban on ROTC because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has backfired.

First and foremost, universities have marginalized themselves as a moral force by expelling ROTC programs. It makes no sense to listen to a university president describe how a financial-aid program will open up opportunities to all when the University is simultaneously maintaining barriers for students to attend the school for free by enrolling in ROTC.

But even over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” universities have lost some of the moral high ground, despite being, in my view, on the right side of the issue. Without a doubt, the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is discriminatory, but it is just silly to respond to a discriminatory policy with your own version of a discriminatory policy. That is what universities have done by setting up undue obstacles to students who are interested both in attending a premier college and serving in the military and are in no way complicit in the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

But more to the point, when universities isolated themselves from the military; they lost their ability to change it from within. ROTC programs train 60 percent of the military’s officers. While the military’s discriminatory policies might be the reasons that schools keep ROTC off campuses today, they’ll never succeed in changing the mores they abhor by establishing barriers that keep well educated students from joining the military.

Admittedly, large universities are complex organizations and administrations have to keep thousands of people happy, but to the extent that their actions are making everyone clearly worse off, it is probably a policy worth reversing, or at least revisiting.

But after Larry Summers was forced out of Harvard, in part for just wanting to revisit the idea of allowing ROTC, I wouldn’t count on it happening anytime soon on our campus.