When Harvard put out the welcome mat earlier this month to reestablish a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, it signaled a thawing of chilly relations between the military and elite universities that date back to the Vietnam War.
In recent years, the key reason for objections to a military presence on campus had been the armed forces' "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays and lesbians, which Congress repealed in December. Now, several other universities also appear poised to reopen their doors to Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) programs – a military scholarship system with its own set of instructors that prepares students to become officers in various service branches when they graduate.
Such moves resonate symbolically. But it's an open question whether the military and more elite universities will really set up programs that make a practical dent in what is increasingly seen as a problematic civilian-military divide.
"ROTC has shifted to the South and the Midwest ... so as a result, we're getting an officer corps that's less representative of the country as a whole," says Cheryl Miller, who has researched ROTC as manager of the American Enterprise Institute's Program on American Citizenship in Washington. Now "you have this really big moment which the military could use or could squander," she says.
In a speech last fall at Duke University in Durham, N.C., Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted, "There is a 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."
He pointed to the concentration of ROTC programs in rural areas and regions where historically there's a greater propensity to join the military. Alabama has 10 ROTC programs, for example, while Los Angeles, with a population more than twice that of Alabama's, has just four.
Now may be a difficult moment for the military to branch out at universities, however.
Army ROTC programs are on track to meet a goal of producing 5,350 second lieutenants for this fiscal year, which accounts for 60 percent of the Army's new officers at that rank. Given that, and an environment of fiscal constraint, the Army "is not necessarily looking to expand [ROTC]," says Lt. Col. Matt Hackathorn, a public affairs officer for the Army's Cadet Command. But the Army likes to keep lines of communication open with universities interested in hosting a program, he adds.
With ballpark ROTC start-up costs estimated at $1.6 million, "we've got to see whether the juice is worth the squeeze," Hackathorn says. The Army generally considers student interest, whether the campus will recognize ROTC instructors as professors and give credit for courses, and whether a prospective program could produce at least a dozen graduates each year.
But elite campuses can make themselves attractive to the military, ROTC supporters say. They could offer courses that fit the needs of officers-in-training and also attract nonmilitary students – on subjects like military history or anthropology focused on Afghanistan – says Michael Segal, who runs the Boston-based umbrella group Advocates for ROTC.
Kevin Kit Parker, an engineering professor and Army major who is heading up Harvard's ROTC implementation committee, prefers keeping ROTC classes separate from other courses. "The point is to give them two different perspectives. You can take those courses on military history or geopolitical affairs ... in the [academic] departments," he says, "and then also you need to hear about geopolitics from the vantage point of being a gunslinger."
Under Harvard's plan for a Naval ROTC (which also includes those headed for the Marine Corps), students will continue to do ROTC course work with a consortium based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is also in Cambridge, Mass. But Harvard will offer financial support and classroom and office space.
Professor Parker is aware of the budget constraints, but hopes that other military branches will find Harvard an appealing place to set up ROTC programs. The military can gain from exposure to such an influential campus, he and others say.
So many Harvard alumni go on to Congress and other leadership roles, and "it's important that people in the military understand the lens through which the civilian leadership sees" issues, Parker says.
It's just as important the other way around – for students not planning military careers to gain perspectives from ROTC and veteran classmates, says Donald Downs, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and coauthor of the forthcoming book "Arms and the University: Military Presence and the Civic Education of Non-Military Students."
In a class discussion on his campus, for instance, most students said they wouldn't hesitate to use deadly force in self-defense. "They were assuming it was easy to kill somebody," Professor Downs says, but an Iraq veteran in the class pointed out that there's a strong human instinct to avoid killing and said soldiers have to go through extensive training to override that when necessary.
"A lot of the burden taken on by the military isn't widely understood," says Jared Monnin, an MIT senior in Naval ROTC, "so with other Ivy League schools and schools in general, the more exposure they can have to ROTC and to the military, the better off society as a whole will be."
Every Wednesday, ROTC students wear their uniforms at MIT, which gives Mr. Monnin a chance to explain ROTC and share stories from his summers training on submarines and going to places in recent news headlines – Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
Despite the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," some students and faculty object based on the military's view of transgendered people. Others are concerned about militarism in general.
Columbia math professor Michael Thaddeus says he objects to ROTC because of concern about "the university being co-opted by outside organizations with their own agendas." He continues, "The military is the focal point of a lot of debate and criticism in society, and ... we need to be institutionally separate from it in order to criticize it effectively."
Heated discussions took place on campus as a Columbia task force examined the issue. Its survey of students (primarily undergraduates) found that 60 percent support the idea of ROTC's return. The university's Senate (a policy-setting group of faculty, students, and alumni) is expected to vote as early as April 1.
Even if ROTC expands on elite campuses, it's a model that "has outlived its usefulness," says Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. More military-oriented students would attend a diverse set of universities, probably at a lower cost, he says, if they could get a scholarship for any school of their choice and do National Guard or Reserve service concurrent with their studies.