On Sunday, the members of the University community will celebrate the career and achievements of Joseph W. Gordon, deputy dean of Yale College and dean of undergraduate education, who retired last month after more than 40 years of service to Yale. The faculty and administration have done much in recent weeks to recognize Gordon’s legacy, and yet one of his greatest contributions to Yale remains largely unknown — even to some who have worked with him in the context of undergraduate academics. That contribution is the immeasurably positive impact he has made on military life at Yale, particularly with regard to Navy and Air Force ROTC.
When then-University President Richard Levin and United States Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced the return of ROTC to Yale in May 2011, there was still much standing between Woodbridge Hall’s welcome message and the actual presence of a functioning military organization on campus. After a more-than-40-year absence from undergraduate life, these new ROTC programs did not merely face severe logistical challenges in finding a home at Yale: They faced the legacies of Vietnam; “don’t ask, don’t tell” and other difficult chapters of our nation’s political life. Levin and his staff had opened the gates for ROTC’s return, but the task of implementing this return fell primarily to the Yale College Dean’s Office.
The first meetings between the Yale administration and the incoming cadre of officers were anything but certain or comfortable. “I was sure I was going to be shredded,” wrote Col. (Ret.) Scott Manning, the first commander of Yale’s Air Force ROTC detachment, about his initial interview. But the apprehension surrounding this moment in Yale history was short-lived, he told us, because of Gordon’s magnanimity and initiative in breaking down cultural assumptions on both sides. Gordon — Yale’s first openly gay college master, who came of age in the academic community during the height of the Vietnam War — was quick to embrace these military officers as members of the Yale community. Manning writes that, with Gordon, “nothing was ever predispositional, [Gordon] only cared about you as a person.” He also added that, “when it came to the politics of ROTC, there was no vitriol, no angst, no drama — [Gordon] wanted to start a dialogue, to find commonalities among groups that might have felt irreconcilably misaligned.”
Time and time again, Gordon made himself available as a voice of reason, facilitating thoughtful engagement between the administration, faculty and United States military across a variety of issues. Operational questions of facilities allocation, ROTC instructors’ relationship to the faculty and speculation about whether or not ROTC classes would receive Yale credit were just a few of the complications awaiting uniformed freshmen on Old Campus. Through all of this, Gordon could be found at the Yale Farm, Elizabethan Club or walking around campus with a mixture of military and academic leaders, cultivating mutual respect and decency when formal conversations were often difficult.
At the heart of Gordon’s work is a strong personal conviction that all students, regardless of interest or background, deserve fair treatment, a warm welcome and an equal share of everything Yale has to offer. These values help to explain why Yale’s three-time chair of the LGBT Studies Program was at the leading edge of Yale’s renewed relationship with the military, which to this day is a frequent target of criticism from the LGBTQ community. His humility, unwavering commitment to policies of inclusion and support for all students wishing to grow in Yale’s traditions of service and leadership made him an at once unlikely and perfect ally in the difficult and unglamorous struggle to allow ROTC to not just return to but also thrive on campus.
There is hardly a more familiar face at ROTC and veterans events around campus than Gordon’s. During our time at Yale, there was not a single ribbon-cutting, enlistment ceremony, commissioning ceremony, Veteran’s Day event or ROTC awards banquet he did not attend. Gordon has more than earned the universal respect and gratitude he holds within the Yale ROTC community, and has shaped our growth as military officers and as human beings. The core focus of ROTC is leadership training, preparing college students to become ensigns and second lieutenants responsible for the lives of the sailors, soldiers, airmen or Marines under their command. “I’ve worked for some incredible leaders in my time,” said Manning, a former F-16 pilot and squadron commander. “Hot spots and cold spots, combat and noncombat — I’ve never met another leader like Joe Gordon.”
James Campbell is a 2013 graduate of Pierson College and the ROTC Program. Contact him at campbell1James@gmail.com . Sam Cohen is a 2015 graduate of Calhoun College and the ROTC Program. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .