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September 12, 2008 [feather]
Serendipity and ROTC

Yesterday morning, I had some sharp words for Columbia University about the way it selectively defines service learning for students. Columbia wants students to be socially and globally aware, and it wants them to combine their learning with giving. But only if that accords with institutional politics--military service doesn't fit Columbia's list of acceptable ways for students to serve. And so ROTC remains banned, despite a 2005 student referendum overwhelmingly expressing support for restoring it to campus--and the reason is explicitly political. The powers that be at Columbia dislike DADT. And they are taking that dislike out on ROTC--and on the futures of young men and women who wish to serve.

As luck would have it, at a service forum at Columbia yesterday both presidential candidates were asked about Columbia's ROTC policy. And both agreed the ban was a mistake.

Here's McCain: "Frankly, we're here in a wonderful institution. I'm proud that my daughter graduated from this school. But do you know that this school will not allow ROTC on this campus? I don't think thats right. ... Shouldn't the students here be exposed to the attractiveness of serving in the military, particularly as an officer ... I would hope that these universities would re-examine that policy of not even allowing people who come here to represent the military and other Ivy League schools and then maybe they will be able to attract some more."

And here's Obama--less direct, more circuitous, but ultimately saying the same thing: "I recognize that there are students here who have differences in terms of military policy. But the notion that young people here at Columbia or anywhere, in any university, aren't offered the choice, the option of participating in military service, I think is a mistake. ... That does not mean we disregard any potential differences in various issues that are raised by the students here, but it does mean that we should have an honest debate while still offering opportunities for everybody to serve, and that's something that I'm pretty clear about."

Joe Biden concurred, when asked his opinion after the forum: "I think that there should be ROTC on campus. No one has to show up and sign up. Just as I defended this University's right to invite Ahmadinejad, regardless of how bad that judgment may have been, how can you say that there should not be an ROTC group here?"

So there you have it. This is really not controversial to anybody but the campus protesters who have grossly misunderstood just how far protest should go. McCain and Obama have quite different stances on DADT--but both can agree that ROTC should be on campus for any student who wishes to serve.

Columbia--and all the other schools that preserve an antiquated ban on ROTC--need to revisit their stance and do the right thing. And the people who don't like it can protest--peacefully, within the scope of law, and they can ensure that we have a lively debate. They could start by lobbying Congress to do what the majority of Americans already want it to do. And they could leave the young men and women who wish to spend their college years training for military service alone. They could also bear in mind that for many of them, ROTC scholarships are what make it possible to go to college in the first place. If they want to fight the good fight, they shouldn't do it on the backs of people who need their ROTC scholarships in order to get a college education.

Columbia has an opportunity here to lead. There are a number of elite private universities that are hanging onto their Vietnam-era ROTC bans as if their lives depended on it. But they are very much in the wrong, and, as I noted in the comments to my post yesterday, the place to protest DADT, which the majority of us can easily see is misguided and wrong, is not ROTC. It would be a great, great thing to see Columbia decide to re-open the ROTC question, not only out of respect for all kinds of service, not only out of respect for Columbia students' desire to see ROTC return, but also out of respect for students' intelligence and freedom of choice. The young men and women who attend Columbia are smart. Surely they should be allowed to decide for themselves where to put their time and their effort?

posted on September 12, 2008 8:50 AM

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I acknowledge Erin's sharp point that boycotting the ROTC deprives students of a chance to serve.

At the same time, this is the point of boycotts: to make life a little more difficult for people, so as to put pressure on them to affect change.

It's easy to say, "Just put pressure on Congress, not students." But let's not pretend that this is only a Congressional issue.

If the military wanted to serve Columbia students, it's leaders would be publicly and loudly insisting that Congress take charge of the issue. If the President wanted to serve Columbia students, he, as Commander in Chief, would send a loud message to Congress. (I don't know the intricacies of military policy making, but I'd think that Bush could issue an executive order to change DADT, even if that was only a symbolic gesture.)

But instead, we've had a lot of silence. Congressional Democrats are cowards who don't want to receive the backlash from "values voters," or they're realists who sell out gay folk for bigger causes. Congressional Republicans don't seem too worried about DADT. Bush and McCain clearly support DADT. Clinton and Obama have spoken out against it.

For me, Bush, as Commander in Chief, should be taking a leadership position on the issue -- if he cares about ROTC. Columbia's boycott is meant to rouse ROTC supporters to send a message to Congress and the President.

So sure, Columbia's leadership should be actively petitioning Congress and the President to rethink DADT. But so too should ROTC supporters, Republican candidates who support ROTC, and the Commander in Chief, if he supports ROTC.

A boycott is meant to force a choice: if you want ROTC, you'll fight against DADT. (Or, if you want to eat at Woolworths, you'll fight against segregation.) By itself, a boycott probably won't achieve much. But along with formal petitioning and other forms of protest, it can be quite effective. Sadly, though, I think it will take protests from conservative, pro-military groups to make any change in the DADT policy

Posted by: Luther Blissett at September 13, 2008 1:40 PM

"...this is the point of boycotts: to make life a little more difficult for people, so as to put pressure on them to affect change."

Uh, I would think this would be about making things difficult for people who can actually impact the policy. The students who are kept from the CHOICE of serving in ROTC are not those people. Congress is.

"If the military wanted to serve Columbia students..."

Clue for you here: the military doesn't exist to serve pampered Ivy League college students. It exists to serve the national security needs of the nation.

"...it's leaders would be publicly and loudly insisting that Congress take charge of the issue."

There's something in this country called "civilian leadership of the military." I've long been of the impression that it's something we value rather highly. You are essentially saying that the uniformed military should get officially involved in a political debate: would that not set a deeply troubling precedent?

"Sadly, though, I think it will take protests from conservative, pro-military groups to make any change in the DADT policy"

I'm a conservative who thinks DADT is a pointless stupid piece of ossified bigotry that's long past its sell-by date, but DADT in this context is an utterly flimsy, phony excuse: it is a fig-leaf facade behind which to hide academic institutional animosity toward the military in general. It was not the reason ROTC was kicked off most Ivy League campuses in the first place, and I would be profoundly surprised if academia welcomed them back with open arms the day the policy changed.

Posted by: Dave J at September 13, 2008 3:03 PM

David, last I checked, voters are the boss of Congress. So yes, making things difficult for voters has often led to getting things done in Congress.

Second, if the military has such disdain for "pampered Ivy League college students" then they shouldn't really want them in ROTC, right?

Third, it's oversimplifying to claim that the military shouldn't take a position on its own membership regulations because it would involve taking a political position. Let's remember that DADT was a sad compromise. DOD Directive 1332.14 had effectively banned gay membership in the military. DADT was the effect of Clinton and Congress being intimidated by value voters as they tried to repeal this ban. To blame Clinton or Democrats for this discrimination is ridiculous. The ban predates "political" (read: Congressional) involvement. The DOD could have responded to military leadership and repealed the ban a long time ago.

I don't pretend to understand how these decisions are made. The DOD should be setting the guidelines for membership in the military. If they weren't discriminatory, the Congress and the Courts never would have gotten involved.

Finally, David, you might be correct that DADT is a red herring for Columbia. But we won't know until it's repealed.

Posted by: Luther Blissett at September 13, 2008 7:35 PM

For information about the student, alumni and faculty ROTC movement at Columbia, check out the Advocates for Columbia ROTC website: http://advocatesforrotc.org/columbia

Posted by: Eric Chen at September 14, 2008 1:32 AM

Luther: "DODD 1332.14 had effectively banned gay membership in the military."

Luther: "The ban predates "political" (read: Congressional) involvement."

Hmmm....the DoD writes its regs based on US Code, particularly Title 10 for active duty military. In fact, Title 10, Sec 654 "Policy concerning homosexuality in the armed forces" pretty much lays it out. The DoD DID NOT ban gays; it was Congress, when they wrote this part of Title 10.


I say this as an active duty USAF officer who will lose zero sleep if DADT is repealed, but your framing the DoD as driving this policy is misplaced.

Was the DoD consulted on this? No doubt, and they were probably all for it (I wasn't in the service at this time). But the bottom line is the rule was set by Congress, not the DoD.

Posted by: rondo at September 19, 2008 11:42 PM