Published November 26, 2008
NEW YORK – Columbia University students will vote this week on whether to bring the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps back to Columbia's New York City campus after a 40-year ban.
The Naval recruiting and training program, known as NROTC, offer scholarships in exchange for a commitment to serve. Currently, there are no NROTC cadets at Columbia University.
"There is no Naval ROTC option in Manhattan. The closest option is SUNY Maritime which is not accessible to Columbia students," said Austin Byrd, a junior at Columbia University and a United States Marine Corps officer candidate.
Columbia's ban includes ROTC for all military branches, but this week's vote determines the future of NROTC programs because Columbia students who are Air Force and Army cadets have access to programs at nearby universities.
ROTC on campus has long been a political lightning rod. During the Vietnam War, university campuses across the United States protested instructors and recruiters. In 1969, in response to anti-war sentiment, Columbia was among several Ivy League schools that kicked ROTC off campus.
That ban stood until 2005 when Columbia students voted to invite ROTC back. But the University Senate — an advisory group made up of faculty and students — upheld the ban, saying it would stay as long as the Department of Defense continued with its "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy barring homosexuals from openly serving in the military.
Senators, it was reported at the time, felt this policy was inconsistent with the universities' non-discrimination code.
During the presidential race the issue was brought to the forefront when both John McCain and Barack Obama, while visiting the campus, re-sparked the debate by questioning the ban:
"Shouldn't the students here be exposed to the attractiveness of serving in the military, particularly as an officer?" said McCain.
"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," said Obama.
This week's vote is not entirely up to the students. If they vote yes, the issue will go once again before the school Senate, but ultimately it is Columbia's board of trustees that will have the final say.
Students on both sides have been out canvassing for their cause.
"I think we need to say, 'No, we're not gonna bring it back right now because of discrimination. Let's work to end "Don't Ask Don't Tell" on a federal level. Let's make sure people know what our objection is and then let's fix it,'" said Avi Edelman, spokesman for the Columbia University College Democrats and treasurer for Everyone Allied Against Homophobia.
"We have a very large, very active gay, lesbian, transgender or queer population and those students deserve the same rights as any other students to participate in NROTC and to participate in any other program. That is why we have a non-discrimination code," said Edelman.
But Lauren Salz, the executive director of the Columbia University College Republicans and a member of the informal coalition "Columbia Advocates for ROTC," said there is room for ROTC on campus.
"I don't think that 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' is a legitimate reason to ban ROTC from campus," said Salz. "Only half of the Ivy League institutions have ROTC on their campuses and I think that needs to change. Our university's going to be a force for change in making the military more diverse," said Salz.
Columbia has been working with the Defense Department and said it offers students reasonable alternatives, no matter what the outcome of the vote.
"It is inaccurate to say that Columbia students do not have ROTC available to them," said Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger. "These Columbia students receive the same scholarship benefits as those at schools that formally host ROTC."
FOX News correspondent Jamie Colby contributed to this report.