Ceremonial Remarks at the Signing of Naval ROTC Agreement

May 26, 2011

Secretary Mabus deserves an enormous amount of credit for sensitively and persuasively beginning this process of re-establishing relations between the Navy, the Services and our universities like Columbia, and I want to recognize him for that.

I’d also like to recognize Secretary Garcia; Dr. Joseph Hoffman, SUNY Provost; Captain Driscoll, Commanding Officer of ROTC; Captain Chassee of the USS Iwo Jima; Mike Rothfeld, who is one of our Trustees; Peter Awn, who is the dean of General Studies and who on behalf of all the deans he speaks for the importance of this alliance; Sharyn O'Halloran, who is the head of the University Senate and who really helped lead us to this moment; all the senior administrators, Susan Glancy who has worked on this—my chief of staff—so effectively, and especially our student veterans.  

It’s important, also, just as a personal note for me to say that my father, who is 86 years old now—joined the marines in the beginning of World War II—flew a very small torpedo bomber plane in the Pacific and arrived on Iwo Jima shortly after the great assault there and all the time I was growing up I lived the memories of his service in that war and the glass of sand from Iwo Jima sort of represents that in our family life.

We’re honored to be here on the flight deck of the Iwo Jima with Secretary Mabus during Fleet Week—an event here in New York which some of our student veterans have told us actually led to their finding out, through word of mouth, about Columbia as a place to come to college or graduate school after their service.  Further up the river on Morningside Heights, we are hosting sessions for prospective students among the sailors and Marines in the City for this celebratory week. 

As many of you know, in recent years we have welcomed hundreds—literally hundreds—of talented veterans as undergraduate, graduate and professional students at Columbia, and they have added to the diversity of experience and perspectives so essential to making the University a place of intellectual discovery and shared experiences.  So I want to make a special welcome to some of our Columbia Mil-Vet leaders who are here with us today.  We are very proud of your service and very proud that you are part of Columbia.

We have a President of the United States (who happens to be a Columbia graduate), a Secretary of Defense, a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, beside me, a Secretary of the Navy who have all spoken compellingly of the need to ensure that we bring about a better, deeper relationship between our military and civilian society, including our great universities.  This is a message Admiral Mullen brought to Columbia in a remarkable day in the spring a year ago.  It is a message we have conveyed by our commitment to welcoming so many veterans to our academic community.  And it is a message delivered last month by our University Senate and supported by our Council of Deans for bringing ROTC back to Columbia after more than four decades.

The civilian and military leaders of our armed forces took a courageous role in ending the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which made it impossible for universities to fulfill our own personal commitment to equal rights and equal opportunity.  This was a great step forward for America’s ongoing journey in fulfilling its highest ideals—providing equal rights for all citizens.    

Now there’s a lot of shared history here.  Some of you know—as Secretary Mabus has pointed out—that Columbia’s long and honorable history of service includes a Midshipmen’s school for thousands of naval officers, candidates and the V-12 training program for medical personnel during World War II.  The founding of our School of General Studies, led by Dean Awn, in the aftermath of the war was in large part to provide a Columbia undergraduate education to returning veterans. And during the First and Second World Wars, Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons created and staffed hospital facilities in Europe for wounded combat troops.

Much of this history and more is told in an interactive Roll of Honor website, which was launched as part of the dedication of our newest war memorial—now mounted in one of the pivotal spots on campus, the entry to Butler Library.

Beyond our generations of alumni who have served, there’s also a notable piece of intellectual history.  A key part of our undergraduate Core Curriculum focuses on issues of contemporary society bringing in classic works to think about those issues.     

That actually began in World War I, when the U.S. Army commissioned Columbia faculty to create a course on “War Aims” for the Student Army Training Corps.  The goal was not exactly scholarly balance, but it was an argument for the Allied cause.  As the College dean at the time put it: “Its significance rested on the fundamental principle that in the long run, man’s accomplishment can rise no higher than his ideals, and that an understanding of the worth of the cause for which one is fighting is a powerful weapon in the hands of an intelligent man.”  (Today, we would say, of course, “intelligent men AND women...”)

The key point is that after the war the course soon developed into a serious consideration of the difficult challenges and responsibilities of democratic citizenship—and along with Literature Humanities, became a core of our intellectual tradition at Columbia.

Rigorous cultivation of critical thinking skills—including the ability to see and understand vastly different perspectives, grapple with difficult moral choices and ably defend one’s own beliefs—is an essential part of leadership in our society.  Our service men and women, especially our officer corps, have an extraordinary responsibility representing our nation in societies around the world.  When you consider the complex challenges they face that call not only for physical courage, but human insight, then it becomes clear how valuable we believe it is to foster this historic reengagement of our military and academic community.

We therefore look forward to resuming formal recognition of Naval ROTC by Columbia after the effective date of the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and to having Columbia’s future Navy and Marine Corps-option midshipmen then participate through the NROTC unit hosted at SUNY Maritime College. We are glad to be part of this partnership. 

I have confidence that, with the return of ROTC, Columbia will be an even more valuable forum for enhancing the relationship between our military and civil society in the years ahead.  Again, I thank you, Secretary Mabus, for pursuing this historic agreement and I am proud to be with you and all of you here today.  Thank you.