At Columbia, a push for ROTC despite setbacks

While the Senate voted Tuesday against debating whether to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, faculty and students at Columbia University are pressing forward with their efforts to bring the Reserve Officer Training Course back to campus.

Two Columbia students have organized an intercollegiate conference in early October to discuss the return of ROTC programs to campuses that have banned them. The students began organizing the conference before Tuesday’s vote with the hope that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would be repealed. While they deemed the Wednesday’s vote of the policy a setback, they said they still hope to energize different campuses to bring back ROTC if it is later repealed. .

For Columbia College student and ROTC advocate John McClelland, getting ROTC units at more Ivy League universities is symbolic of the military developing a more inclusive culture. A former Army medic who served in Afghanistan, McClelland said he was exposed to a larger diversity of opinions and values when he came to study at Columbia. If the military could train its cadets at Ivy League schools, with their more inclusive cultures, future officers might make the armed forces more friendly toward gays and lesbians, he added.

“If you are a gay soldier, you want a commander who is not biased against somebody because that commander had gay friends in college,” McClelland said.

Columbia sociology professor emeritus Allan Silver, an Army veteran who co-wrote a statement supporting ROTC’s return that 20 Columbia professors published in the Spectator, the campus newspaper, said ROTC programs need to adapt to the liberal arts curriculum at institutions such as Columbia, Harvard and Yale.

Many Ivy League universities reevaluated ROTC programs on their campuses in the wake of the Vietnam war, Silver said, and at the time, professors were shocked to discover what they saw as subpar academic standards of the programs. Silver and his colleagues promote a new approach to integrating ROTC into the university curriculum, one that incorporates a broader scope of academic disciplines.

“In this age, it’s not bad for military officers to know some anthropology, some languages, some ethics,” he said. “All of that is the core of the liberal arts.”

Columbia has roughly 350 undergraduate veterans on campus, McClelland said, and a dozen students who are participating in ROTC this year. By comparison, only two Yale students participated in ROTC last year. At both Yale and Columbia, students participate in ROTC programs offered at neighboring universities.

At Yale, University Secretary Linda Lorimer said she does not know how quickly ROTC would return if “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were repealed. The program must be first studied and reviewed by the faculty and office of the University before it could come back to Yale, she said in an interview Wednesday evening.

But this year, Yalies interested in an ROTC program can participate in the Army ROTC at the University of New Haven to fulfill their requirement, whereas in the past, they had to make the longer commute to the University of Connecticut in Storrs. As a result, given that Yalies can fulfill ROTC at neighboring schools, Lorimer said the military may not be a need to establish an ROTC program at Yale.

“Since our students have the opportunity to participate at University of Connecticut and University of New Haven, would having a unit here attract enough additional students?” Lorimer said.

Still, McClelland and others at Columbia believe all Ivy League schools should be part of the conversation about bringing ROTC back to their campuses. McClelland and his friend and fellow Columbia student Learned Foote decided to organize the conference because previous discussions about ROTC at their university focused too much on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” McCelland said.

While a third of the conference will be focused on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” most of the conference will be about the relationship between ROTC and higher education, he added.

About 10 universities said they will attend the conference, Foote said in an e-mail. While he does not know whether any Yale students will come, Foote added that students from Harvard and Brown have expressed the most interest.

Four Ivy League universities currently run some form of an ROTC unit: Princeton, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth College.

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