As any casual peruser of Bwog comments understands, Columbia students can often have fundamental differences in understanding even the most basic facts behind issues on their own campus. This phenomenon tends to manifest itself most notably around campus issues of great controversy, such as gender-neutral housing, the hunger strike, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to campus. When students fail to understand the basic facts or statements related to the issue, as has been the case in the recent debate over the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, such a lack of understanding greatly diminishes our ability to have a productive dialogue in which participants can better understand each other’s intentions and actions. As is oft-attributed to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
Unfortunately, students appear to feel entitled to their own facts when they debate Columbia’s relationship with the military, including the ROTC program. As professor Allan Silver pointed out, while the heady days of 1968 included students with many reasons for their protests, including anti-Vietnam War sentiment, the Mansfield Committee’s decision to phase out the Naval ROTC program was due to the “academically irregular” concessions made to the military in matters of hiring and curriculum during the emergency of World War II and did not relate to the “present mood on campus” in 1968. There has not been any other sort of “ban” on military activities at Columbia, aside from the military’s use of career placement services at the University, which was forcibly lifted by the passage of the 1994 Solomon Amendment. The recent Color Guard ceremonies, which have been seen as a sign of a shift in Columbia culture, were taken by the University Senate as merely participation of Columbia students in ceremonies honoring the flag. To my knowledge, the ceremonies have not been met with anything other than support or, at the most, indifference from other Columbians.
I am a member of the queer community on campus and an active participant in the campaigns against ROTC’s return under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2008 and for gender-neutral housing. And I see the issue as a relatively uncomplicated one. The Armed Forces are currently prohibited by law from accepting openly LGBT service members regardless of the military’s view of the policy. Columbia policy prohibits University programs from discriminating based on, among other things, sexual orientation and gender identity. Military service has been an important facet of the idea of civic engagement for millennia, and it is inimical to national interests that the policy excludes students like me from this avenue of service to our country.
I support the strengthening of a sense of community and civic engagement not just on Columbia’s campus, but also throughout our nation—especially at a point in our history when it feels we have never been more divided in our civic and political lives by class, religion, sexual orientation, ethnic background, and political outlook. The Color Guard ceremony does not require the University to violate its own policies on equality and fairness. I feel the flag-raising ceremony is one way for the Columbia community to reflect on the University’s place in a country with a history both admirable for its commitment to values like freedom, equality, and justice and tarnished by times when it has failed in its commitment to those values.
The exclusion of, at times, racial minorities, women, and, currently, LGBT individuals from serving in the military does not merely deprive the military of valuable human capital in its goal of protecting our society, but it is antithetical to the values in our society that make it worth protecting. Individual students connected to the military can and should be encouraged to contribute to the life and conversations of the Columbia community without the military receiving direct endorsement from the University itself. Such contributions made in an environment of open, factual, and critical discourse can only strengthen us as a community and a country.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in East Asian languages and cultures and economics-political science. He is the outreach coordinator for Everyone Allied Against Homophobia and a representative on the Student Governing Board.