Even if presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama succeed in influencing Ivy League schools to accept military recruiting programs, few believe it would yield more than a handful of new officers.
But the impact on the military, and on the East Coast elite that still struggles with military service, would be enormous, say officers and recruiting experts.
Both presidential candidates said at a forum on national service at Columbia University last week that Ivy League universities that do not embrace military officer training programs should rethink their position. Despite the unpopularity of the current war, Sens. Obama and McCain seem to share the view of many that it's time to bridge the divide between the military and the educated elite that has grown since the Vietnam War.
Five of eight Ivy League schools including Columbia uninvited the military's Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC program, after that war. "I recognize that there are students here who have differences in terms of military policy," Obama said during the forum at his alma mater Sept. 11. "But the notion that young people here at Columbia or anywhere, in any university, aren't offered the choice, the option of participating in military service, I think is a mistake."
"I don't think that's right," McCain said during the same forum.
A political lightning rod
America's 140-year-old military officer commissioning program helps funnel thousands of officers into the services by allowing students to essentially "minor" in military studies, studying ethics and military history, and completing physical fitness training.
But over the years, the program has become a political lightning rod as campuses protested instructors and recruiters, first over the Vietnam War and more recently over the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which bars homosexuals from serving openly.
Unable to deny access to military recruiters, several Ivy League schools refused to allow students credit for ROTC programs. "There is definitely an irrational fear on these campuses," says Lt. Col. Paul Dulchinos, who has run an ROTC program at Providence College in Rhode Island and has been pushing Brown University to open up its campus, closed to the military since 1972. "They have to realize this is not Vietnam."
Colonel Dulchinos, a former professor of military science, would like to see Brown reserve at least three seats every year for ROTC scholarship recipients. "I just want an acknowledgment at the highest level of the administration of this school that this is a desired population that we want to encourage to be part of our student body." Since 1996, Brown has graduated just one four-year ROTC scholarship student and three others not admitted as freshmen, he says.
In a written response to Dolchinos's letter on the issue in The Providence Journal this week, James Miller, Brown's dean of admissions, said the school does not have admission quotas. But it "fully supports and honors students who choose careers of service, including service in the armed forces."
Dulchinos believes more Ivy Leaguers in the military would help balance the demographic profile of the services.
It would also help society, some believe. Frank Schaeffer, a self-described "Volvo-driving, higher-education worshiping" writer from Massachusetts, found his view of the military changing when his son unexpectedly enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1998.
Mr. Schaeffer laments the unfavorable shift over the decades in the East Coast elite's perception of the military. In 1956, he says, Princeton graduated 400 students who later served in uniform. By 2004, he says, just nine of the school's graduating class entered the military.
A shift in attitude?
But sentiments may be changing again as the current generation appears to be more drawn to national service, including military service, than the post-Vietnam boomer generation was.
Schaeffer, who wrote the 2006 book 'AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service – and How it Hurts Our Country,' believes the Pentagon has been "cowardly" in not recruiting more people from the upper classes. This failure, he says, stems in part from President Bush's now infamous directive to Americans after the attacks of 9/11 to go shopping.
Perceptions of military service could change once Bush leaves office, he says. "If we have a popular president and he asks people to do things, my guess is that folks will step up and show up at the recruiting station."