Elite Universities Slow to Welcome Back ROTC

In light of the repeal of the military's “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy against openly gay servicemembers, some elite colleges and universities that have long banned ROTC programs on campus have begun considering changes in their policies.

But some military advocacy groups say change is not happening fast enough, and these schools continue to find more excuses to keep ROTC off campus.

Now there is a growing movement to enforce an existing law that prohibits giving federal funds to such institutions.

The colleges' “whole justification of 'don't ask, don't tell' (to ban ROTC) was not a really honest reason to begin with,” says Danny Gonzalez, director of communications for MoveAmericaForward.org. “I think many of these Ivy League schools … have had an anti-military bent since the Vietnam War.”

MoveAmericaForward.org is one of a growing number of organizations and groups calling for enforcement of the Solomon Act, a 1995 law that allows federal funding to be withheld from universities that shut out ROTC.

The law was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2006 but has not been used against any universities by the federal government.

“We’re paying our taxes for all of these schools,” Gonzalez says. “And the American people want to know the military is not being slandered and that their tax dollars are going to institutions that support our troops.”

Enforcement of the Solomon Act means a lot of money is on the line for universities. For example, in the fiscal year 2010, Harvard received $621 million in federal funding; Yale received $510.4 million; and Stanford received approximately $880 million. Brown University and the University of Chicago also risk losing federal funding by banning the ROTC.

In a recent letter to President Obama, California Rep. Duncan Hunter called for the White House to ensure universities “open their doors” to the ROTC, and if necessary, to use the powers of the Solomon Act to do so.

“Several of America’s elite colleges and universities—including Columbia, Harvard, and Yale – have repeatedly denied students the opportunity to participate in ROTC on campus,” Hunter says. “Many of these same institutions, fueled by new elements of anti-military activism, continue to deny students the opportunity to pursue a career in the military or even consider the education benefits and life experiences that are unique to military service.”

Since Congress repealed the military's gay ban late last year, several universities have begun exploring the return of ROTC to campus.

Harvard President Drew Faust gave this statement following the U.S. Senate vote: “I look forward to pursuing discussions with military officials and others to achieve Harvard’s full and formal recognition of ROTC. I am very pleased that more students will now have the opportunity to serve their country.”

Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons formed a committee to “evaluate our current policies on ROTC, and to make recommendations with respect to the appropriate role for Brown in officer training programs.” The committee is scheduled to give a progress report on their work on March 15.

Yale University has taken the biggest actual steps in returning the ROTC to campus. President Richard C. Levin says his administration will be discussing the matter with faculty during the spring semester, after the university sends an embassy to Washington to determine the military’s interest in establishing an ROTC unit at Yale.

“We are very hopeful that these discussions will enable us to begin a new chapter in the long history of Yale’s support of the U.S. Armed Services,” Levin said in a statement.

Columbia University’s recent town hall meetings on whether the ROTC should be allowed back on campus made national headlines after students heckled an Iraq war veteran speaking at the meeting. Some students laughed and others yelled "racist!" at Anthony Maschek, a Columbia freshman and former army staff sergeant who was awarded the Purple Heart after being shot 11 times in a fire fight in northern Iraq in February 2008.

The Columbia University Senate, whose members include administrators, faculty, and students, commissioned a task force to gather campus opinion on the issue of ROTC returning to campus.

The task force is scheduled to report the results to the senate on March 4, and a final decision will be made in April.

Stanford University has also commissioned a committee to deliberate whether Stanford should reinstate the ROTC program.

Some against the return of ROTC are saying the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" didn’t completely end discrimination in the military, and that transgender individuals still can’t serve in the armed forces.

“Repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' was a huge step forward in terms of GLB (gay, lesbian and bisexual) rights, but only in GLB rights. There’s not that piece there for trans people to join (the military),” says Stanford Senior Christopher Bautista. Bautista, himself a member of the transgender community, knows of other transgender individuals who are fit for and interested in serving our country in the military, but are unable to because of the continued discrimination.

Until they are allowed to, he says, the ROTC shouldn’t be allowed back on Stanford’s campus.

“If the ROTC were to return it would tell trans people that they’re not important enough, and they’re still marginalized…I would just be really disappointed.”

Others say even with the gay ban repeal, inequality throughout society still exists for homosexuals because of bans on same-sex marriage, and until those inequalities are also gone, ROTC shouldn’t be allowed on campus.

Gonzales says arguments like this don’t really have a place in the discussion of ROTC returning to university campuses. “To us that seems totally illogical. It’s not our military’s responsibility to fix the problems in society.”

Such arguments, Gonzalez says, are proof that "don't ask, don't tell" wasn’t the real issue universities had with the military. “They’re using that excuse that whole time. Now they’re trying to find further excuses to why they still can’t let ROTC back on campus.”

Several Ivy League institutions are already working towards establishing an ROTC on campus, according to Col. Russell Carriker, acting commander for Air Force ROTC Headquarters. “Part of the first step (in establishing an ROTC on campus) is the university expressing interesting in doing that.

There are several Ivy League universities that are doing that.” Carriker says the institutions have asked to not be named at this point, but says there have been some good discussions thus far.