The “New” Politics of ROTC?


History was kind to us as we were researching and writing Arms and the University between 2007 and 2011, for it was at the end of this period that the on-going movements to restore ROTC to campuses that had effectively barred the program in the 1960s succeeded. In addition to the conscientious and sometimes prodigious efforts on the part of ROTC advocates to restore the programs at several schools (see the broad coverage on Mickey Segal’s definitive website, Advocates for ROTC), the decisive historical event that enabled ROTC’s partial return was, of course, the abolition of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law, which discriminated against gay Americans.

Yet we also prognosticated in our conclusion that, despite the return of ROTC at schools such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Stanford, it would be naïve to expect universities to welcome ROTC with open arms. Because ROTC left during an era of unprecedented conflict over military presence on campus, we expected that opponents would continue to target ROTC even in a post-DADT environment. In addition, we noted that those generally supportive of ROTC would recall that there were more reasons than DADT for a troubled relationship between the military and higher education, such as the military’s own benefit-cost calculations and issues of academic standards. Sure enough, the movement and successful return to ROTC has generated controversy in at least four respects: 1) remaining questions regarding academic standards; 2) concerns about continued discrimination, such as against transgender students; 3) surviving concerns about militarizing civilian campuses; 4) disputes over the reasons why ROTC left several schools in the late 1960s. What do we make of the “new” politics of ROTC in the post-DADT milieu?

One claim that needs to be addressed first and foremost is the claim that academic standards comprised the main reason for ROTC’s exit from the Ivies and other schools in the late 1960s. We think this claim is historically wrong, and that perpetuating it threatens to distort the present debate.

In early April, Harvard undergraduate William H. Ryan addressed  Harvard’s recent announcement that it would be opening a branch of Army ROTC later this year. Ryan maintained in the Harvard Crimson that ROTC was effectively barred from Harvard in 1960s primarily due to academic concerns, not anti-Vietnam War militancy, and that such concerns remain. Ryan’s claim about academic standards in the 1960s mirrors what law professor Diane H. Mazur wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times in October 2010. In “Making ROTC Work at Harvard,” Ryan wrote,

The report of the faculty policy committee responsible for removing ROTC indicates that the true reasons for ROTC’s removal did not have anything to do with the military’s policies as a whole, but rather with the structure of ROTC itself. ROTC is unlike any current Harvard organization in that ROTC units are actually academic departments within universities that are under the control of the United States military. The military gets to decide the content of classes, the credit given out, the students allowed to enroll, and, to a large extent, the instructors who teach its classes, while the university has to support the department and give it Harvard’s imprimatur. This inconsistency almost inevitably results in disparate academic standards, amounts of credit given, and quality of teaching staff within the university.”

Ryan is certainly correct that academic concerns were among the reasons that several Ivy and non-Ivy League schools pushed ROTC away in the tumultuous ’60s. And we have long respected Mazur’s points of view regarding the military and civilian universities. Indeed, we use a penetrating quotation from her as an epigraph to Chapter 6 of our book. As we document in Arms and the University (a documentation amply supported by other students of the politics of ROTC), ROTC programs had questionable academic standards in several important respects, raising concerns about the quality of courses, the quality of instructors, and the status of institutional control. In response to these concerns, the military strove to work out accommodations with institutions of higher learning; yet such efforts fell short at several schools. Ryan is also right that the official reports by faculty committees at Harvard, Columbia, and elsewhere focused on academic problems.

But a primary focus on academics over anti-war politics amounts to missing the forest for some of the trees. Indeed, giving priority to the academic standards argument is to disregard, almost ostrich-like, the incredible pressures and passions exerted by anti-war activists back in those tumultuous times. One of us, Donald Downs, was a college student back then, and was keenly aware of the anti-war politics that swept through many campuses like erstwhile tsunamis—especially at such schools as Harvard and Columbia, which were shaken to their very foundations by virulent anti-war movements. (Donald was a student at Cornell, which was also shaken by a powerful student movement. But as he shows in his previous book, ROTC remained there—under great pressure—due to land grant obligations.) These concerns were also present at Columbia in 2011, as we show in our chapter on the climactic vote to restore Navy ROTC by Columbia University’s Senate on April 1, 2011—a vote that was the culmination of a tortuous decade-long political process. The very existence of this struggle suggests that many members of the university feared a return of the famous upheavals of 1968 if ROTC were restored.

Because of the complexities involved, Arms and the University does not take a definitive stand on which motive was primary: academic; political; simple fear of often overwhelming student pressure. But the evidence we document certainly favors the political/fear position on balance. This slant is consistent with the evidence we considered, and with what we know about universities from our own extensive experiences. At the very least, we believe it is both naïve and unhistorical to definitively conclude that academic standard were paramount.

We conclude Chapter Four by quoting Dean V. Hovde of Columbia University, who wrote a letter in reply to an angry alumnus who charged that the decision against ROTC in 1969 was made at the point of a political gun. “I can understand that the phasing-out of ROTC may look like a collapse before pressure. Certainly there are others who feel as you do. But as I mentioned when we had lunch at the Columbia Club, there is a difference between the reason why a particular issue is raised and the principles in accord with which the issue is resolved.”

Yes, there is such a difference. But these principles were not acted on in the several decades that preceded the late 1960s. Concerns over academic standards and institutional control had accompanied ROTC since its inception in 1916. But it was only in the late 1960s that schools moved to divorce themselves from the program, which was also when the military was striving to accommodate academic concerns. Why did academic issues prove decisive then, but not before? In the end, we let our readers be the judges, though we nudge them in the direction of politics and the passions associated with that. If one accepts the importance of politics in the divorce of ROTC from universities, then one may see, as we do, that the “new” politics of ROTC is better described as a continuation of the old politics involving military presence in American universities.

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About the Author: Ilia Murtazashvili

Ilia Murtazashvili is the author of The Political Economy of the American Frontier (2013) and co-author of View the Author profile >


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