The Return of ROTC to Columbia


After months of debate, Columbia University is poised to reverse its 42-year ban on military recruiters and training programs on campus. On Friday, the University Senate approved a resolution to explore inviting back the Reserve Officers Training Corps program to campus. The resolution now goes to the University’s Board of Trustees for final approval.

The resolution, which first became public last month, after it was leaked on student blogs, reads: “Columbia University welcomes the opportunity to explore further mutually beneficial relationships with the Armed Forces of the United States, including participation in the programs of the Reserve Officers Training Corps.” The student-run Coalition Opposed to ROTC immediately issued a statement declaring the resolution to be “flawed and politically biased,” and decrying what it called the “highly undemocratic process” that led to this point.

For Columbia, the prospect of bringing back ROTC recalls a four-decade legacy of protests against a military presence on campus. In the first half of the 20th century, Columbia was actually a hotbed of military recruiting: During World War II, its Naval Midshipman’s School is reputed to have graduated more naval officers than the Naval Academy. All that changed in the mid-1960s, though, as students began voicing their opposition to the Vietnam War by protesting Naval ROTC graduation ceremonies. In the spring of 1968, student demonstrations and anti–Vietnam War sentiment brought the entire university to a standstill, as radical students took over buildings and set fire to parts of the campus.

“Naval ROTC was an obvious symbol of Columbia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam,” says Mark Rudd, one of the student leaders of the 1968 revolt. “Attacking the ROTC became a useful way to attack the war itself.”

After reviewing the events and student sentiment, the University Council of Columbia University, the governing body at the time, passed a resolution in 1969 terminating Columbia’s relationship with the Navy. Even after the Vietnam War ended, student opposition to military programs remained high, and after President Clinton issued his “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” directive in 1993, Columbia and several other universities, including Dartmouth, Yale, Harvard, and Stanford, based their continued refusal to allow ROTC on campus on the grounds that military policy violated their own anti-discrimination rules.

Columbia students are not currently barred from enrolling in ROTC, but they must go off-campus for their military training. The Army runs a ROTC program at Fordham University in the Bronx, and the Air Force headquarters its program at Manhattan College. Columbia students interested in the Marines Officer Candidate School can attend sessions in Quantico, Virginia, during the summer months.

During their time at Columbia, students take military science classes and engage in training exercises to learn leadership skills. Cadets receive a scholarship of up to $17,000 to use toward their Columbia tuition, and receive an additional $250 and $400 per month in stipends. Upon graduation, they join the military as officers; the Army ROTC, according to its figures, produces 75 percent of all Army officers.

The commute to Fordham is onerous, but that isn’t the main reason for bringing the program back to campus, according to Jose Robledo, a Columbia College student in economics and political science who is one of the university’s 10 students currently enrolled in Army ROTC. “It’s more of a symbolic engagement that would happen on campus,” as students are exposed to people who are supportive of the military, he says.

Many in the anti-ROTC camp were concerned that having an on-campus ROTC would imply the university endorsed the military and approved of its activities. Noting a number of recent U.S. military action that may be considered “immoral and illegal by international law,” Bruce Robbins, a professor of English and comparative literature, expressed his concerns during a March 8 panel discussion at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs: “We have a moral obligation to do everything we can to prevent people from thinking [military practices are] natural and normal.”

Opponents of ROTC also worried that program instructors could hold professor rank while not being subject to university rules, or that students would receive academic credit for their military classes, as is the case at some other colleges. “I do not object to Columbia students in ROTC, but I do not want Columbia University to sponsor it,” Columbia astronomy professor David Helfand said at the SIPA panel.

Columbia’s Task Force on Military Engagement—a group of students, faculty, and administrators convened last December to solicit campus opinion on a return of ROTC—issued its 228-page final report on March 4. It found that 60 percent of the students who responded supported having some form of on-campus ROTC. However, the report also directed that any ROTC classes should not give academic credit unless the class was open to all the students, and that ROTC instructors should not be considered part of the faculty unless the university hired them and they are subject to university policies. (The leaked draft of the University Senate resolution indicated that the university would retain control of course credits and instructor status, but this was omitted from the final version.)

Despite his continued opposition to the military as “a machine for global domination,” and his role in getting ROTC kicked out in the first place, Rudd has mixed feelings about having the program back on campus. The military has changed since the Vietnam War, for one thing, and is now an all-volunteer organization.

Moreover, with the current officer corps “very heavily conservative Republican,” Rudd wonders if perhaps training future officers at Columbia might not be a bad thing after all. “They’ll have been exposed to both liberals and the liberal arts,” he says. “Perhaps they’ll moderate the right-wing officer caste mentality a bit.”

All this may be purely academic, though, if ROTC doesn’t choose to return to Columbia. With the military currently downsizing, Army ROTC spokesperson Lt. Col. Matt Hackathorn told the Voice following Friday’s vote that the Army is “not looking to expand” its ROTC program at this time. That said, Hackathorn was pleasantly surprised at Columbia’s decision. “It’s a positive step,” he said, “and one we would certainly want to assess.”