University President Richard Levin and United States Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley signed an agreement Monday to establish a branch of the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps at Yale, ending the program’s 54-year absence from campus.

When the program begins at Yale next fall, it will join a newly-established Naval ROTC unit, which the University announced in May. Citing the University and military’s shared emphasis on public service, Levin said the program will draw students from across southwest Connecticut and help the University contribute more leaders prepared to serve the country. Yale’s last Air Force ROTC unit closed in 1957, and ROTC has been absent from the University as a whole since 1970, Donley said. After the US Congress voted to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” — the policy barring gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military — in December 2010, Yale administrators said they would work with the military to bring ROTC back to campus.

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“[Establishing an Air Force ROTC unit] is a natural evolution of Yale’s long and deep tradition of public service,” Levin said.

About 35 people attended a press conference and formal signing of an agreement between Yale and the Air Force on Monday afternoon. Those present included the University of Connecticut’s Air Force ROTC detachment, Yale alumni and officers of the University. A four-piece brass band played “Bright College Years” when Levin and Donley ascended to the second floor of Woodbridge Hall, where the signing was held.

Yale held a similar press conference in May, when the University announced that a Naval ROTC unit gained approval from the Yale College faculty and Yale Corporation and was cleared to return to campus in fall 2012. That program will be the only one of its kind in the state of Connecticut.

Like the Naval ROTC program, the new Air Force ROTC unit will be based on Yale’s campus but will be open to students from other colleges and universities. The University of Connecticut’s Air Force ROTC program also enrolls students from other schools. Levin said 15 students from Yale and other schools in the New Haven area currently participate in the University of Connecticut’s Air Force ROTC unit and will enroll in Yale’s unit.

Andrew Hendricks ’14, who drives 64 miles to Storrs, Conn., for weekly training, is currently the only Yale undergraduate enrolled in the University of Connecticut’s detachment. The commute to Storrs is the hardest part of participating in ROTC, he said.

“Everything is related to proximity,” Hendricks said. “Now that everything is on campus, I think the interest will increase, and we will have a lot more cadets.”

Because the federal government finances ROTC programs, Levin said they require a “substantial” up-front commitment from the armed forces. With the participation of students from other schools in New Haven, Levin said he thinks the Yale unit will attract a “critical mass” from the beginning.

“It is my hope that with a full-time presence [on campus] … many more students will be attracted [to] the opportunity to serve our country,” Donley said.

Major Joel Harper, a member of the Secretary of the Air Force’s office of press affairs, declined to estimate how large Yale’s ROTC unit will be. But because Air Force and Naval ROTC programs attract different types of students, he said, he does not think that they will compete for participants.

Eleven of 20 students interviewed said they thought the program is a positive addition to Yale’s extracurricular offerings. Most students said they would not participate, but some said they believe ROTC will attract a more diverse pool of applicants to the University.

“I feel like Yale has a certain aura, and this would attract people who wouldn’t usually go here,” Zoe Kitchel ’15 said. “I have [a friend] doing ROTC [at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisc.] and he would definitely be more interested in Yale if they had offered the program.”

Few students said they strongly oppose the unit, but Isaac Bloch ’12 said he does not think the University should endorse military service given the destruction that has resulted from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I don’t really think that [the military] is something that Yale should be encouraging as a career option,” he said.

Several Yale alumni in the audience at Levin and Donley’s announcement in Woodbridge Hall Monday afternoon said they had hoped the University would re-establish ROTC on campus since they were ROTC cadets at the University of Connecticut themselves.

Rob Berschinski ’02 GRD ’08, who attended Yale on an Air Force ROTC scholarship and completed training at the University of Connecticut, said he was eager to return to campus when Yale invited him to the Monday press conference at which Levin and Donley announced the creation of the new unit.

“This is a day I’ve waited for for a long time,” he said.

Yale’s original Air Force ROTC unit was established in 1946.