Madison, Wis. — The University of Wisconsin, once the scene of some of the most strident opposition to the Vietnam war, has an unusually busy Army ROTC office these days. Enrollment in the Reserve Officers Training Corps is double what it was a decade ago and up 29 percent just in the last year.
Anti-establishment feelings once ran so strong on this campus that a couple of fraternities were firebombed. Now, for the first time in 20 years, members of the fraternity-sorority community have been elected to lead their traditionally liberal student government.
This university, as most others around the country, is moving into the mid-' 80s in a considerably more sedate fashion.
''We have a nearly issueless campus these days in the sense of galvanizing topics, and there are far fewer students really interested in providing leadership,'' says Wisconsin's associate dean of students, Roger Howard.
Timothy Lawless, co-president of the Wisconsin Student Association (WSA) and a member of Sigma Chi fraternity, says someone with his Greek ties would not have been elected as recently as four years ago.
''Students nationwide are becoming much more moderate,'' he says.
Indeed, a recent poll by the American Council on Education found that only 21 percent of the nation's students consider themselves politically liberal, compared with 52 percent a decade ago.
What's behind all the change?
Students and those who work with them say the current emphasis on practicality is very strong. College is seen as a more direct route to a job. Some students participate in extracurricular activity only for what it will add to experience and the job resume.
Although initial protests were loud against the Solomon Amendment, which requires students to be registered for the draft in order to receive financial aid, very few students at Wisconsin or other campuses opted to pass up the aid rather than comply. ''The reason? It involves money. And there is no war and no draft,'' says Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel of the American Council on Education.
In a similarly practical vein, more students at Wisconsin are taking advantage of an increase in military scholarships. The Pentagon has really ''sweetened the pot,'' insists Wisconsin's financial aid director, Wallace Douma. A Defense Department spokesman confirms that just as college ROTC enrollments have been rising steadily at a rate of about 2,000 students a year, so the number of authorized military scholarships is sharply up. The total jumped by one-third, he says, just between 1981 and 1982.
Once suspicious of working with off-campus organizations not under student control, Wisconsin students now tend to view such groups as more effective.
''Students are more amenable to going through established channels and are more likely to concentrate on community issues where they can really have an effect rather than on national or international issues,'' says Mr. Lawless, as he perches on a stool in a WSA office in the student union.
''Students in the past have spun their wheels a lot,'' he adds. ''They saw that civil disobedience didn't really work. We got out of Vietnam because our political leaders finally realized it was a quagmire - not because of student protest.''
''There's a feeling now that student-initiated things are useless and that if you're really going to get involved in something, you should join the larger statewide or national groups opposing nuclear power or taking a stand on the environment, because that's where the action is,'' notes Dean Howard from his Bascom Hill office on the center of campus. ''There's a certain distrust of marches, picketing, and banner-waving.''
Still, in Vietnam days there was the constant threat for many students of personal involvement in the war. Few issues today spark such immediate concern.
''I think the image of the Wisconsin student as a political radical was always overdone, but Vietnam did touch the lives of many students in a very personal way,'' says Dean Howard. ''Their university status was a key factor in whether they were drafted or not. The draft was a real threat.''
''If there ever were a draft again, obviously it would galvanize the whole campus, and we'd be back into the national-international spectrum all over again ,'' says Mr. Lawless. ''But I think students would be less likely to resort to violence - they'd probably concentrate on lobbying lawmakers.''
''We're still a potential tinderbox if the right spark comes up,'' agrees Dean Howard. ''If the US were to start drafting students for a war in Central America, we'd very quickly develop a protest movement again. The ferment and the bubbles are here.''