Last week’s announcement that Naval ROTC will be returning to campus in the fall of 2012 marks an important moment in Yale history. As a century’s worth of headlines suggest, Yale’s relationship with the Armed Services (or lack thereof) is a divisive but important part of our university identity. The last 100 years give testament to the ever-shifting relationship between Yale and the armed forces — from the late 1940s, when campus was as much a military base as an academic institution, to the late 1960s, when anti-ROTC protests saw several students arrested on charges of assaulting police officers. But as ROTC prepares to return from a 42-year absence, it’s difficult to say what the next chapter will look like. Much has changed since the year 1970, the last time we had ROTC on campus. It’s likely that the ROTC units that return in 2012 and beyond will look very different than those that were here in the sixties.

The return of ROTC to Yale does not guarantee its success or permanence. In reality, the establishment of a successful ROTC unit will face considerable practical challenges. The most substantial will be enrollment. In 1970, the year ROTC announced its departure from campus, Yale’s Army and Navy programs boasted a combined enrollment of more than 100 cadets and midshipmen. Yet today there are only 2 currently enrolled Yale students who participate in ROTC. The low numbers persist despite the fact that the nearest ROTC unit is only 8 minutes away at the University of New Haven. When the Yale College Council conducted its survey on ROTC and Military Service back in November, 97 respondents indicated that they were interested in ROTC but were not currently participating in the program because they found the current off-campus options inaccessible. Does this mean that eliminating the 8-minute commute will get 95 more people to enroll in the program? No. The inaccessibility of off-campus ROTC programs is about more than the fact that they’re off-campus. We cannot assume that just by moving ROTC activities back to campus they will instantly be perceived as accessible and appealing. In order to build a successful ROTC program here, both the university and the military have to realize that our incentives for participating in ROTC are not the same as those for students at most other colleges. Due to the quality of Yale’s financial aid policies, the potential benefit of an ROTC scholarship for a student with high financial need is likely to be marginally insignificant in comparison to Yale’s financial generosity. In the absence of this significant financial incentive, we must find a way to motivate enrollment by focusing on the other primary benefits of ROTC: leadership and service.

For ROTC to be successful at Yale, we must build the resources for leader development and officer training. The advantage to having gone four decades without ROTC is that an absence of expectation creates an abundance of creative opportunity. Professor Gary Haller, Chair of the Faculty Committee on ROTC, said in a recent interview with the News that he hopes the Navy and the university might develop new programs that take advantage of Yale’s engineering resources. Similarly, Yale ought to bring high-ranking military officers and civilian officials to campus to talk about the military’s role in academia, not to mention the increasingly complex relationship between our country’s civilian and military leadership.

Yale can and should build a framework around future ROTC programs. We have the opportunity to make Yale a premier destination for the study of both civilian and military leadership — not only for the benefit of ROTC students in southern Connecticut, but for the academic community at-large. These are things we should be excited about. These days we hear a lot about the “divide” between America’s Armed Forces and elite academic institutions. Here we have an opportunity to bridge the divide, to truly redefine the relationship between scholarship and military service — and more, to redefine the preassumed, default socioeconomic and geographic identity of our nation’s military. The United States Military certainly isn’t perfect, and probably isn’t a perfect fit for a place like Yale. But at the end of the day, commissioning military officers who share in our community’s commitment to diversity and critical thought will make this country better. As long as that’s true, this is a cause worth caring about. We won the fight to bring ROTC back, now let’s win the fight to make it work.

James Campbell is a sophomore in Pierson College and the head of the Yale College Council ROTC committee.

Correction: June 2, 2011

An earlier version of this article misstated James Campbell’s college. It is Pierson, not Davenport.