The R.O.T.C. Myth

Published: October 29th, 2010

Category: Op-Eds

This op-ed appeared Oct. 24 in The New York Times.

By: Diane H. Mazur
Diane H. Mazur, a professor of law at the University of Florida and a former Air Force officer, is the legal co-director of the Palm Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the author of “A More Perfect Military.”

EVERYONE knows that Ivy League universities banned the Reserve Officer Training Corps from their campuses during the Vietnam War. Forty years later, the bans continue, though the reason has shifted from war protest to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay men and women in the military.

That’s what everyone thinks. But it’s not true. Instead, the bans are a convenient fiction, one that lets the military (and to some extent, universities) off the hook when it comes to the growing distance between civil and military America.

In September, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a speech imploring universities to end their bans and let the military back on campus. Senator Scott Brown, Republican of Massachusetts was more pointedly critical, asking how Harvard can support the Dream Act, which would open a path to legal status for undocumented students, yet close the door on “young people who want to serve their country.”

Some argue that there ought to be a law holding colleges accountable if they refuse to support the military.

It turns out there is such a law. The Solomon Amendment, passed in 1994, withdraws federal financing from any college with a “policy or practice” preventing the military from “maintaining, establishing or operating” R.O.T.C. on its campus. The law also takes financing away from colleges that bar military recruiting. The Defense Department hasn’t been shy about enforcing its right to recruit, going all the way to the Supreme Court and winning in Rumsfeld v. FAIR.

So if there are colleges that ban R.O.T.C., why aren’t they being punished?

The answer is that in all my research on the subject, I have found no universities that ban R.O.T.C., nor has the military initiated action against any institution for banning the program. We have grown accustomed to saying there are bans only because it fits with the assumption that certain colleges are unfriendly to the military.

It is true that many Ivy League colleges do not have R.O.T.C. detachments today. Forty years ago, the military started to close detachments in the Northeast and establish programs in the West and South.

This shift stems from a disagreement in the late 1960s between the Ivy League colleges and the military. Should R.O.T.C. have to comply with the host college’s rules for academic course content and professor qualifications? R.O.T.C. said no, colleges said yes, and the two had to agree to disagree. R.O.T.C. then walked away from Northeastern campuses.

While Harvard is often described as “expelling” R.O.T.C. in 1969, the story is more nuanced. After the military refused to meet Harvard’s standards on academic coursework, the faculty voted to relegate the program to an extracurricular activity, and the military decided to leave. But Harvard did not abolish the program, and it was only much later that people began to talk of a ban.

On occasion, some faculties have approved resolutions recommending that R.O.T.C. not be reinstated at their campuses. Those are not bans. On occasion, students have protested against R.O.T.C. Those also are not bans.

Secretary Gates is being disingenuous when he says he is disappointed that elite colleges no longer play an important role in attracting the best and the brightest to military service. Before he criticizes universities, he needs to ask why the military seemingly has no interest in being there.

The military may be more comfortable when it retreats to parts of the country with a disproportionate number of military installations — and where universities don’t ask a lot of questions. That sense of comfort, however, works against a military with a desperate need for a more diverse officer base and a wider variety of language and cultural skills.

For their part, colleges may also be more comfortable when they go along with the fiction of banning R.O.T.C., because then they don’t have to answer to people upset about “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Everyone buys into the myth, but at the expense of military readiness. The military needs to return to the colleges it walked away from, and everyone needs to stop pretending that R.O.T.C. programs ended because of a ban.

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