As Harvard welcomes back ROTC, other elite schools may follow

At a ceremony with the secretary of the Navy, Harvard welcomes ROTC back to its campus, ending a Vietnam-era ban. Columbia, Brown, and other top schools may soon do the same.

Elise Amendola/AP
Demonstrators hold signs on Harvard University's campus in Cambridge, Mass., Friday, March 4, protesting the agreement signed between Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus that will recognize the Naval ROTC's formal presence at Harvard.

Elite universities like to compete, and Harvard Friday crossed the finish line as the first elite school to welcome back ROTC to its campus since Congress ended the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gays serving openly in the military in December.

But watch out Harvard: others may not be far behind.

The bans on the Reserve Officers Training Corps at Harvard and other elite schools date back to the Vietnam era. Most of the schools that still ban ROTC – including Brown, Columbia, Stanford, Yale, and the University of Chicago – have flirted with the idea of getting rid of these policies for years. But with the repeal of DADT, several have shown a reinvigorated willingness to reconsider their policies.

At Columbia in New York Friday, a student-faculty task force recommended that the Columbia University Senate consider bringing back ROTC.

“Columbia has periodically revisited ROTC over the years,” says Ron Mazor, a Columbia Law School student and student co-chair of the task force charged by the Senate with examining the issue.

The Senate, a university-wide legislature that represents Columbia faculty, students, and administrators and makes policy on a range of university-wide issues, formed the task force after the DADT repeal.

Around 60 percent of Columbia students surveyed said they support bringing ROTC back to campus, according to a Columbia Senate poll. Mr. Mazor says the Senate is slated to vote sometime in April on whether it is bringing back ROTC.

At Brown University in Providence, R.I., University President Ruth Simmons appointed a similar committee of students and faculty in February to study their own ROTC policy. The committee is expected to make their progress known on March 15, according to the university’s website.

While ROTC does not maintain on offices on campuses from which it is banned, individual students at those universities can be enrolled in ROTC and receive their training at campuses nearby.

At the signing ceremony in Cambridge, Mass., reversing Harvard’s ban on ROTC, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a Harvard Law School graduate, invoked the school’s long relationship with the military, pointing out that Harvard boasts 17 Medal of Honor recipients, trailing only West Point and Annapolis.

He also said the interaction of serviceman with civilians helps build a stronger society.

“Because of the policy disagreements of the past, there has been no formal military presence on Harvard,” said Mabus. “Too many undergraduates leave college having had too little contact with anyone who serves. These relationships matter.”

Harvard President Drew Faust echoed that theme, reading from a letter sent to her by recent Harvard graduate and Marine Corps officer Shawna Lee. Lee wrote that being on campus in uniform had given “perspective to my fellow students, many of whom will someday find themselves making policy decisions about our nation’s military men and women.”

IN PICTURES: The US Marine Corps

But it is unclear whether lifting these policies will significantly change the ROTC presence to campuses in the near future. Brown University’s lone ROTC student currently attends training at Providence College, located ten minutes from campus. Even if Brown changes its ROTC policy, President Simmons has hinted that Brown’s ROTC students may choose to continue to train at Providence for practical reasons.

As for Harvard’s ROTC students, they currently train at the program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also in Cambridge, and are funded by private donors. Under the new policy, Harvard’s NROTC (Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps) program will have an official head, enjoy access to university facilities, and be provided with office space. But its students will still participate in MIT’s Naval ROTC program.

Though the repeal of DADT has given a kick to the movement to return ROTC to these universities, some students say the military has not gone far enough to end discrimination. About 30 students protested outside of Friday’s signing ceremony at Harvard, chanting “NO ROTC without trans-equality,” a reference to the military’s policy of not allowing transgendered people to serve.

Harvard’s policy toward military recruitment last received national attention during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. As dean of Harvard Law School, Kagan barred military recruiters from using the Office of Career Services (OCS) to reach students in 2004, because of school policy that said potential employers could not discriminate against students. That policy was halted in 2005, and military recruiters have since been able to use the OCS to reach students.

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