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.
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.
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.
Defrays costs of tuition
Fourth, in an era of shrinking scholarship resources for students, ROTC provides an opportunity for some students to attend expensive, private universities who could not otherwise afford to do so. Financial expediency is clearly not the major reason for supporting ROTC on campuses, but it is a factor that should at least be considered given the current estimated average cost of education at a private school: $45,000 per year.
Opportunities for curriculum crossover
Fifth, many years ago, I served on a university committee at Stanford University that negotiated with the Department of Defense (DOD) concerning academic credit for ROTC courses. In these negotiations, the Department of Defense indicated its willingness to grant ROTC credit for courses taught by Stanford professors. For example, a course on war and conflict taught by the respected Professor Peter Paret, a translator of Clausewitz’s “On War,” would have been granted credit for the required ROTC course on military history. If DOD were now willing to accept such courses, the objection to having non-Stanford professors teaching courses for academic credit would be lessened.
No more DADT
Sixth, the Department of Defense has now repealed its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy concerning gay members of the military services. In the past, this discriminatory policy caused many to object to the presence of ROTC on campus. That policy has now been lifted and should not, therefore, be the basis of objecting to ROTC on campus. Some ROTC opponents argue that the military still discriminates against transgendered people and, because of this, ROTC programs should be excluded from campuses. Such an objection is a red herring, a diversion that directs attention from the need to provide a public good (national defense) to an ancillary issue (sexual orientation equality).
Broadens access, dialogue
Seventh, the presence of ROTC on campuses is good for universities. ROTC provides scholarships for many students who could not afford to attend expensive private universities that banned ROTC four decades ago. The program gives universities the opportunity to participate in national defense and can help bridge the growing gap between the civilian and military sectors of American society, improving and diversifying dialogue on campus. ROTC training also enhances the leadership experience students gain and gives student cadets and midshipmen employment experience as well. Both these experiences support the goals of elite education and are important factors in the present economic environment.
Defense needs educated elite
Last, the United States and its allies face a clear and present danger from terrorism, and this threat is not likely to disappear in the near future. It is highly desirable to provide more opportunities for members of our society from elite universities to participate in the defense of both our country and, more broadly, civil society throughout the world.
For these reasons, colleges and universities that forced ROTC off campus during the volatile times of the 1960s and 1970s should heed Obama’s call.
Dan Caldwell was in Naval ROTC while in college, served for three years on active duty in the Navy, and is currently a professor of political science at Pepperdine University. He's also the author of “Vortex of Conflict: U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.”