University Senate Says No to ROTC

The message from Morningside was loud and clear: the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) is unwelcome, as long as the U.S. military remains closed to openly gay personnel.

The point was delivered on May 6 by the University Senate, which voted 53 to 10 to uphold Columbia’s 36-year-old ban on ROTC. The decision by the advisory group composed of faculty, students, and administrators is not binding, but the administration has pledged to respect the vote, thwarting a nearly two-year campaign by some students, alumni, and professors to reinstate ROTC at Columbia. The University initially booted the military scholarship programs in 1969, following months of intense student unrest and war protest on campus.

During a heated, two-hour debate punctuated by hisses and cheers from dozens of onlookers in Schermerhorn Hall prior to the vote, several senate members said they would oppose a new ROTC chapter specifically because they consider discriminatory the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Provost Alan Brinkley, who abstained from voting, as is his custom, received a loud, standing ovation when he concurred: “Would we agree to an organization on campus,” he asked, that allowed “African Americans to join this organization only if they pass for white?”

That argument, some ROTC proponents charge, too easily absolves Columbia of its moral responsibility to fully support student participation in the ultimate form of civic duty. “Should Columbia adopt the same posture toward military service as do privileged elites and their institutions — namely, take a free ride while cheering or deploring from a distance?” asked sociology professor Allan Silver after the vote. He argued that progressive institutions, by hosting ROTC, in fact could “stretch the terms” of government policy and help it embrace gays eventually.

“I think it is clear that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is intolerable to almost everyone on this campus,” added business professor Michael Adler, a faculty adviser to the student group Advocates for Columbia ROTC. “A proscription against gays is not something condoned by anyone I’ve spoken to.” Nevertheless, many members of the Columbia community want the military scholarship program to return, he said, in part because of the considerable financial assistance it offers students, as well as for fear that the ban could one day provoke government retribution against Columbia. (This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments about the Solomon Amendment, which links universities’ federal financing to military recruiters’ access to campuses.)

For the time being, a handful of Columbia cadets will continue to commute to Fordham University and Manhattan College to participate in their ROTC army and air force units, respectively. Nine undergraduates this past academic year put on their uniforms every week and made the trek to the Bronx institutions to learn military leadership skills and earn tuition and stipends in exchange for a multiyear commitment to serve in the military.

But it’s not to difficult to imagine larger numbers of Columbia students training as military officers in the future, says Nathan Walker ’08TC, a doctoral student who cochaired a senate ROTC task force last spring and voted against reinstating the program. “It’s clear to me, from my work on the senate, that when the military stops its invidious discriminatory practices, Columbia probably will support ROTC’s return,” he says. “Some students are against the military for fundamental ideological reasons, but they don’t represent the majority.”

Brinkley agrees: “The big difference between this situation and what happened [when Columbia initially banned ROTC] in 1969 is that now there does not seem to be strong intrinsic opposition toward the military, other than with regard to this discriminatory policy. I don’t see a reasonable prospect of Columbia’s influencing government policy on this issue, but in the meantime, our community includes gay and lesbian people who are watching this as a sign of the University’s level of respect for their dignity. My feeling is that if we accepted an organization that discriminated against our own students, we would be betraying the values of our institution.”