February 20, 2009
Kudos for Colgate
The debate about ROTC on campus has taken on an annoying chicken-and-egg quality. When challenged about why ROTC is not on campus, private colleges and universities often dissemble, sidestepping the ideological morass of DADT (which they can no longer cite, in the wake of Rumsfeld v. FAIR), and claiming something along the lines of: "It's not feasible to have ROTC on campus. There just isn't student interest. If there were, we'd explore establishing an on-campus corps." But the problem with that is that ROTC can be an "out of sight, out of mind" prospect for college students--if it's not a presence on campus, it's not as likely to be something students consider, or even know they can do. And if they do consider it, they bump up against some pretty serious obstacles: the inconvenience of commuting to a different campus several times each week, very early in the morning, to train; and the understanding that what this commute means is that their own campus is not exactly supportive of students who want to do ROTC. Motivation can flag under those conditions, and there is a lot of attrition among ROTC students who have to travel to another school to train. That attrition, in turn, appears to justify schools' claims that their students just aren't interested in doing ROTC--and that therefore they don't have any obligation to look into making that an on-campus option for students.
But perhaps, just perhaps, students' psychology is not exactly what administrators claim it is. Would it be so surprising to learn that, in this case, as in so many others, what works best for students is not perfectly aligned with what admins and faculty want?
Take the case of Colgate. ROTC has just returned to Colgate this semester, after an absence that has lasted since the program disintegrated during the Vietnam War.
A corner of the fourth floor of Lathrop Hall, which was partially vacated after the opening of the Robert H.N. Ho Science Center, now looks like a U.S. Army recruiting office. Posters and pamphlets advertise the training and financial incentives of the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. Colgate, like many other colleges and universities, disbanded its ROTC program during the Vietnam War era. Until this semester, Colgate students who wished to participate in ROTC had to commute to Syracuse University twice a week to participate in their Army ROTC program.
Three Colgate students, junior Stephen Kendrex, first-year Alan He and sophomore David Ko, currently participate in Army ROTC. Last semester, Major Eric Schaertl came to Colgate to meet with the cadets once a week to relieve their commuting time.
"We met everywhere," He said. "Mostly Huntington gym, the track outside when it was warm out and Sanford Field House. Major Schaertl even came to the Coop to meet a couple times."
Major Schaertl joined with members of the Colgate faculty and administration to help meet the students' need for a space on campus. The administration gave ROTC the space in Lathrop Hall for classes and meetings. Army First Sergeant Ken Alcorn, who has been with ROTC for six years, was tapped to lead the program. He has been in the Army for 24 years, serving tours in Germany and Korea, a combat tour in Desert Storm and a stint as a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson. Alcorn was chosen for his expertise in building ROTC programs on college campuses; the program he started three years ago at Utica College has flourished under his leadership.
"The motivation and will to try and make this program happen between Colgate and the Army caught fire over Christmas break," Alcorn said. Alcorn will spend Thursdays at Colgate, Tuesdays at Syracuse University and the rest of the week at Utica College. In the future, depending on the success of the program, Alcorn envisions spending two days a week at Colgate. Two other cadets, one from SUNY Morrisville and one female cadet from Hamilton College, will participate in Colgate's program.
"What we're looking at to do here is take baby steps and grow," Alcorn said. Four additional Colgate students have already expressed interest in the program since it has had increased its visibility on campus. Kendrex set up a booth at last week's activities fair. Lieutenant Colonel Susan Hardwick, who leads the Syracuse Army ROTC program, is going to meet with President of the University and Professor of Philosophy and Religion Rebecca Chopp at some point to figure out the details of Colgate's relationship with ROTC. Sergeant Alcorn and the cadets are planning to have an open house for the Colgate community sometime in mid-March.
"To grow an ROTC program in my opinion is not done by the cadre or the people who are running it; it's done by the students," Alcorn said. "If the program is good, they enjoy it and talk about it and then other people want to do it. The best recruiters are the college students."
"If we do everything perfectly and the school is happy to have us here, Alan will be the start of Colgate's own program, and Kendrex will only have to go to Syracuse a few times," Alcorn said. "The goal is to stop the commuting. The goal with me coming here is to make it easier for them. The program is for the cadets. We're trying to bring ROTC to the students."
Alcorn said the program's goals for this semester are to "get a presence on campus, get accepted on campus and gage the reaction of the campus." Alcorn hopes to grow to a squad size, with ten to fifteen cadets, as a short-term goal.
Right now, Colgate's ROTC program is taking "baby steps," says Alcorn. ROTC's presence on campus emerged as a solution for a student need. In the next few years, they hope to "grow based on needs and interests of students here at Colgate."
Baby steps is the right way to go. They are still huge by any measure--and they are the sort of steps that a great many campuses can and should be taking.
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