The quality of discussion about ROTC is improved if factual errors do not obscure serious issues. We are told, for example, that ROTC is unacceptable at Columbia because the military recruits among the poor. Instances of predatory recruiting do occur but no institution, including universities, is without scandal. In fact, the military recruits from the broad middle of the population, screening out those with criminal records and certain health problems, and those lacking a high school diploma. Relatively few recruits come from the lowest 20 percent of the income distribution. Blacks are recruited in proportion to their presence in the population, Hispanics at lower levels. Citations to relevant research are available on request.
More immediately relevant for Columbia, the officer corps is drawn disproportionately from southern, lower Midwestern, and mountain states, from large, less selective institutions, and from smaller colleges with a marked military culture. It is to such places that the military withdrew after ROTC left Columbia and its peer institution in the 1960s and in the drawdown after the Cold War. It is in such locations that the military feels comfortable and unchallenged. However, America needs a military drawn from the whole nation, including its most selective institutions of higher learning, where its future leaders are exposed to the critical edge that Columbia and its sister institutions offer. We don’t want a military comfortable only in its own cultural skin and future civilian leaders with little sense of fellow citizens who serve in it.
We’ve been told that ROTC would militarize the University and its curriculum. However, students in ROTC have all the rights and obligations of all other students—they become officers only when commissioned after graduation. ROTC students would take the same courses, major in the same subjects as other students. That’s part of ROTC’s worth, as distinct from the service academies like West Point. The faculty would have total control of the curriculum and, as at MIT and Princeton, award no credit for courses that do not meet academic standards. Forty years ago, ROTC programs were ended at Columbia and peer institutions because faculties were spurred by the crisis of Vietnam to insist on this point. That requirement stands today. True, the culture of the military does not conform to academic standards, but neither does that of business and finance, among other settings that students enter. The University should not unduly constrain choices that students make about their lives after leaving it.
Repeal of legislation prohibiting service by open homosexuals leaves in place regulations prohibiting service by transgendered individuals. Here we face a difficult choice requiring a sense of history. In 1869, the great black leader Frederick Douglass, and the great feminists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton split because Douglass, who advocated for women’s rights, accepted the 15th Amendment, though it excluded women. When blacks were integrated into the military in the pressures of the Korean War, women were not. When the new voluntary military of the 1970s drove the integration of women, open homosexuals were excluded, to be included 35 years later. The painful logic of progress is that each inclusion, earlier unimaginable, creates an exclusion defining a future goal. At each stage, we consolidate a victory while lamenting its incomplete character.
We are told that ROTC is incompatible with the University’s character because the military applies violence in the service of imperialism. Here we are not in the domain of fact but of judgment. If one is seriously—not opportunistically—against violence on pacifist grounds, the discussion is closed. Not all accept the judgment that American policies involving the armed forces since the end of World War II are categorically wicked. The University is open to a wide variety of perspectives, many highly critical of prevailing conditions, others at ease with them—in either case often with great passion. No one perspective can capture the University on its own behalf. Within its broad institutional neutrality, the University must be open to all. At the least, ROTC has a place in Columbia’s many-roomed mansion. At the most, ROTC would make a distinctive contribution to Columbia’s educational experience and the quality of citizenship, both among those who bear arms and those who do not.
The author is Professor Emeritus of Sociology.