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Colleges reconsider ROTC after 'don't ask' repeal

Three days a week, Yale sophomore James Campbell rises at 5 a.m. for ROTC drills on a college campus that isn't his own.

He would gladly do push-ups and run circles on Yale's campus.

But even if that were an option, he wouldn't have much company. Campbell is Yale's only Army ROTC cadet.

Like other ROTC members who attend colleges that do not host the program, Campbell trains at another school — in this case, the neighboring University of New Haven. Because Yale does not fully recognize ROTC, he does not earn any academic credit toward his Yale degree for the military science course he must take at New Haven for his commission.

Forty years ago, ROTC units disappeared from Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford and other elite schools, casualties of Vietnam-era tension and academic power struggles. Now, those same schools are moving toward welcoming ROTC units back thanks to the imminent demise of "don't ask, don't tell," the policy barring gays from serving openly in the U.S. military.

The mutual interest in resurrecting ROTC detachments is a significant development in the sometimes strained relationship between the military and universities.

But it's far from certain the military will return to these colleges. And the prospect of renewed campus debates on the topic could expose antimilitary sentiment that some suspect lurked beneath stated opposition to "don't ask, don't tell."

"I think it's more than just rhetoric right now," said Donald Downs, a professor of political science, law and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of a forthcoming book on the military and universities. "Especially at the administrative level, I think the schools are sincere. The real question is how willing the military might be."

Opposition might arise, but universities largely value the positive impact veterans bring to campus, as well as their GI Bill money, Downs said. At the same time, the military long ago shifted officer recruitment to the South, "and a lot of people in the military, they're not sure the Ivy League type of student is the kind that would make a good warrior," he said.

Campbell is trying to counter such beliefs as head of the Yale College Council ROTC Committee. He points out the college had about 100 students in ROTC when the Army and Navy pulled out in the early 1970s, unwilling to meet Yale demands for an extensive overhaul of the program and elimination of academic credit for ROTC courses.

Although it is often said campuses "banned" ROTC, Downs and others say the reality is more nuanced. Disputes in the late 1960s and early 1970s centered on whether military programs passed academic muster. But those issues existed before, and colleges didn't press the issue until outrage over the war in Vietnam boiled over.

"The reason for this perceived divide between the country's elite academic institutions and its military is people don't think students want to serve in the military," Campbell said. "But Yale students haven't been serving in the military because we haven't had the same channels as everyone else."

After the Senate vote to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," Yale president Richard Levin said the faculty next semester would consider expanding students' military opportunities. He also said school officials would "consult with officials in Washington early in the new year to determine the military's interest in establishing an ROTC unit at Yale."

Columbia University this week announced a university task force would explore whether the school should formally participate in ROTC. In a statement, Columbia president Lee Bollinger said the demise of the military's policy "effectively ends what has been a vexing problem for higher education, including at Columbia — given our desire to be open to our military, but not wanting to violate our own core principle against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."

Jose Robledo, a junior in Columbia's School of General Studies and Army ROTC cadet who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, said a political position like "don't ask don't tell" imposed on the military doesn't justify creating barriers for students to take part in ROTC.

But to Robledo, it's not a simple matter of bringing an ROTC unit to campus. What needs to take place, he said, is a serious conversation about the role of the military in civil society and liberal arts education.

"ROTC should come back to Columbia if Columbia is comfortable with it," he said. "Columbia at a minimum should support their ROTC students as much as they support other students. The military should support regions where they have not had much success in recruiting as much as they support places that they do. It's in the military's best interests to have as many diverse people as they can."

While military officials have pressed elite schools to be more welcoming to ROTC, they've also made clear resources are scarce and not every request to be a host campus can be fulfilled.

Maj. Monica Bland, a Department of Defense spokeswoman, said it is premature to know how the repeal of DADT will affect ROTC. Right now, 489 schools host ROTC units, and nearly 2,469 schools have cross-town affiliations with those units. The number of host campuses has remained stable in recent years, even as cadet and midshipmen enrollment has risen, Bland said.

"They don't really need these schools," said Michael Desch, a political science professor at Notre Dame and an ROTC expert. "It would be symbolic in terms of having the Ivies and other elite schools sort of come back in the fold."

Others say the benefits are more than symbolic. Lt. Col. Steven Alexander, who heads the Army ROTC program at Cornell, the only Ivy League school with Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC units, cited the great value in a Cornell civil engineering graduate.

"Right now, that's critical for us," he said. "The military is solving all sorts of crazy problems we didn't think we'd have to solve — like building a sewer system or an electrical grid in a third world country."

Short of hosting, the universities could begin awarding degree credit for some ROTC studies. Or they could offer campus space for ROTC events and cover expense for travel to host campuses, which some already do. Yale pays for a rental car for Campbell's commute.

At Stanford, where ROTC cadets train on other campuses, a Faculty Senate committee started reconsidering the university's relationship with the ROTC months ago and is scheduled to make a recommendation in the spring. Ewart Thomas, a psychology professor who heads the committee, said he was "delighted by the repeal" and believes it will "lighten the task of the committee."

But other potential roadblocks exist. Thomas said some in the university community don't believe the repeal will eradicate what they perceive as institutional discrimination in the military against gays and lesbians. Others object to U.S. military policy or argue that ROTC courses lack academic rigor and should not count for credit — arguments that hearken back to the 60s.

"I really think the argument has to be, the more universities get involved in the training of the leadership of the military, the better the state of the citizen leadership of the military will be, and everybody is going to be better off for it," he said.

Harvard president Drew Faust has pledged to pursue talks with the military and others to "achieve Harvard's full and formal recognition of ROTC" in light of the Senate vote repealing "don't ask, don't tell."

Victoria Migdal, a junior Army ROTC cadet and president of the Harvard ROTC Association, said Harvard doesn't have the numbers to justify hosting a unit. There are 19 Harvard cadets now based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Migdal said the goal should be formal campus recognition, which would help build numbers.

"I have always looked forward to when the two major elements of my life — being in ROTC and being a Harvard student — could be reunited," she said. "We got kicked off campus 40 years ago. It's time to put the past behind us."

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