University President Richard Levin and U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus signed an agreement Thursday afternoon establishing the return of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps to Yale, ending over 40 years of absence from campus.

With top University administrators, faculty and Navy officials looking on in the Corporation Room of Woodbridge Hall, Levin and Mabus signed off on the terms that will bring the Naval ROTC back to Yale in the fall of 2012. In separate remarks, both recalled Yale’s tradition of public service and leadership, and highlighted the historic significance of the program’s reestablishment.

“This is an important moment for Yale, the Navy and the country,” Levin said. “I have personally looked forward to this event for many years.”

Interested students will no longer have to travel away from campus to attend ROTC classes, a marked difference from the ROTC chapters recently introduced at Yale’s peer institutions. Yale’s branch will also become available to students from other college and universities in Connecticut, and will welcome them to take ROTC instruction under cross-enrollment arrangements.

The program’s launch has been delayed for a year so administrators can work out details such as recruitment, Levin said after his speech.

After the December repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — the military policy preventing gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military — Levin said he immediately set plans in motion for the reinstatement of ROTC at Yale. He commended the Navy’s commitment to reinstate the program in order to tap “a deep pool of talent at Yale,” despite federal pressure to reign in spending on new officer training.

“From a purely quantitative perspective, the Navy has no need to open new detachments,” Levin said.

It was a “happy day” for the Navy, Mabus said, noting Yale’s longstanding relationship with the military, including educating students who go into service after graduation or promoting understanding of international issues through the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

Mabus noted that the lack of military presence in the nation’s foremost universities meant that students had little interaction with “those who serve” — an opportunity that could expose them to new ideas.

In a Yale College Council survey released in Decemeber 70 percent of students responded that they supported the establishment of a ROTC unit on campus. Thirty percent of those students said ROTC’s return must be contingent on DADT’s repeal. But some detractors deemed the program too pre-professional to fit into Yale’s liberal arts curriculum.

A liberal arts education, however, might actually complement the U.S. military’s mission of service, Levin and others said at Thursday’s event.

Pat Collins, one of the many midshipmen present from the Naval ROTC unit based at the College of the Holy Cross, said that a liberal arts curriculum could help military officers develop a more well-rounded mindset. Mabus himself saw no incompatibility between the liberal arts and a military calling.

“Even though I wasn’t a Yale undergrad, I was an English major [in college],” he quipped.

For now, Yale officials are focusing on the new Naval ROTC but administrators are currently in conversations with the Air Force, Levin said.

Yale was one of the first six colleges to host a Naval ROTC, back when the program was installed in 1926.