The Return of ROTC

The Return of ROTC

President Lee C. Bollinger signs NROTC agreement.

Ushering in a New Spirit of Engagement between Columbia and the U.S. Military

By Maurice Emerson Decaul

Last April, nearly 42 years to the day after a Columbia University Senate subcommittee recommended that the University terminate its association with the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC), the University Senate voted 51-17-1 to bring NROTC back to Columbia, signaling a new spirit of engagement between Columbia and the U.S. military.

Yet, for most of the more than 250 years of the University's history, engagement with the military has been the rule, rather than the exception. Early graduates of King's College fought in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, and Columbia graduates participated in significant numbers in the Civil War; during World War II, over 20,000 officer candidates were trained for duty at a midshipmen's school located on the Columbia campus, and after the war, Columbia students had the option to participate in NROTC as well as ROTC programs for the Army and Air Force. By the late 1960s, however, tensions ignited by the war in Vietnam led to calls for a reassessment of the ties between universities and the military. At Columbia, demonstrations were mounted against military recruitment on campus and the University's membership in the Institute for Defense Analyses, a consortium of leading universities and government agencies funding military research. After a series of protests at campuses across the country—the most prominent of which occurred at Columbia in the spring of 1968—ROTC programs at many college campuses, in particular those of the Ivy League, were shuttered, creating a recruiting gap in the Northeast that has largely been filled by Southern and Western states.

However, shortly after NROTC was eliminated from Columbia in 1969, attempts to restore the program were made. The first attempt began in 1974 with the Tien Special Committee, which reaffirmed the earlier decision. The issue largely lay dormant for three decades—during which Columbia students had the option to participate in the Army or Air Force ROTC programs—but resurfaced in 2003 via a survey given alongside the Columbia College Student Council elections. Sixty-five percent of survey respondents supported restoring NROTC to campus, contingent upon the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy. An ROTC task force convened by the University Senate in 2005 unanimously agreed that DADT was inconsistent with the University's non-discrimination policy but was evenly split on whether this policy should prevent NROTC's return. In a 2008 survey of the student bodies of Columbia College, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of General Studies, and Barnard College, 49 percent of respondents voted for NROTC's return.

"While the Columbia community debated the impact of ROTC on the University, top military officials addressed the potential consequences of unbalanced recruiting efforts. "If I worry about anything, I worry about the demographics of recruiting," Admiral Mike Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a question-and-answer session at Columbia's World Leaders Forum in April 2010. "We recruit heavily from the Midwest, the South, the Southwest, etc. And I think the balance of [our recruitment] in the long run has got to be from all over the country."

"It makes sense to focus on places where space is ample and inexpensive, where candidates are most inclined sign up and pursue a career in uniform," former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remarked in a lecture given at Duke University in September 2010. "But there is at risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally, and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend."

In December 2010, following the repeal of DADT, the University Senate convened a task force on military engagement, which, following a series of public hearings, recommended that the Senate formally address the issue of ROTC. The Columbia Senate's vote, while historic, was not sui generis—Yale and Harvard also reinstated ROTC programs in the spring of 2011. Columbia does, however, have the largest population of veterans in the Ivy League-approximately 500 are enrolled for the 2012-13 academic year, with half attending the School of General Studies. GS Dean of Enrollment Management Curtis Rodgers notes that it is "the confluence of two wars, the new Post 9/11 G.l. Bill, the Yellow Ribbon Program, and the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' that makes 2012 the perfect time for NROTC to return to Columbia's campus."

For a university that prides itself on the diversity of its classrooms, the presence of ROTC cadets is salutary, both for the class and for the cadet, as new graduate Jose Robledo '12, himself a veteran and an Army ROTC cadet, suggests. "You have the cadet sitting there with the veteran, the people who are anti-war, the people who are anti-government, the people who are very pro-government—this cadet can make much more infomed decisions about what kind of military leader he is going to be," Robledo says. "The university's role is to continue to expand the opportunities for that conversation to happen."