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With DADT out of the way, Harvard and military make a great couple

With Harvard welcoming the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) back to campus, the debate over ROTC's place at elite universities roils on. But here is an opportunity to show that the American military and top colleges have a critical partnership that benefits them both – and the US.

By Dan Caldwell / March 9, 2011


Back in January, in his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama called “on all of our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.” Last week, Harvard University announced that it would be welcoming the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) back to campus, after an over 40-year absence. Though significant, Harvard’s move does not signal an end to the objections to ROTC.

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Even though a new poll conducted by Columbia University found that about 60 percent of its students support the return of ROTC to campus, heated resistance remains. A few weeks ago, Anthony Maschek, a soldier who was grievously wounded in Iraq and who is now a student at Columbia University, was booed and heckled when he spoke at a town-hall meeting supporting the return of ROTC.

World's top 10 universities, Harvard leads again

Mr. Obama’s call and the shameful action at Columbia call attention to the reasons that ROTC units should be on campuses that expelled them in the 1960s and 1970s. The ROTC debate is less about the specific objections to the program and more a proxy for the larger controversy over the role of the American military, war, and the ideological questions with which universities and their students struggle in that context. But the ROTC debate also provides a unique opportunity to show that the American military and the very institutions of higher learning that have bred critical questioning of its actions, in fact, have a critical partnership – one that benefits both parties, and all of America.

Here are eight reasons that ROTC should return to elite university campuses.

Benefits all Americans

First, national defense is a public good from which all Americans benefit, philosophical objection to the military or not. ROTC programs at universities, particularly those that are expensive, private ones, enable more of those students who choose to help bear the cost of this public good to obtain an education.

Brings critical thinkers to military culture

Second, during my three years on active duty in the Navy, I found that officers educated at universities such as Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford often had markedly different attitudes than their peers from the military academies or state universities with large ROTC programs. I believe that the presence of such officers in the military is highly desirable; they are representative of an important segment of American society that is currently under-represented in the military. They are more likely to question unreasonable or illegal orders or policies than those educated in a more militarily, hierarchically oriented environment.

Tend to view force as limited

Third, as Duke University professors Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi found in their 2004 study of American civil-military relations, a number of those educated at elite universities who serve in the military go on to serve in important positions in the executive and congressional branches of the US government, and, like Colin Powell, they tend to view the potential of the use of military force as limited. In contrast, elite civilian non-veterans, such as Madeleine Albright, tend to view the usefulness of military force as unlimited.


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