On the eve of the third schoolwide ROTC town hall, the Coalition Against ROTC at Columbia struck back Tuesday night.
At a panel discussion hosted by the newly formed coalition, professors and students laid out their arguments against ROTC’s return, in light of recent media coverage that they felt inaccurately portrayed them as rude and unpatriotic.
The exclusively anti-ROTC environment was necessary, coalition member Feride Eralp said, because the town halls “do not provide a safe space” to discuss ROTC’s return.
“We feel that the administration is biased in favour of ROTC, and that we cannot discuss our opinions without being portrayed as being unpatriotic or harassing veterans,” Eralp, CC ’14, said.
From her seat on the stage of the packed Mathematics lecture hall, Sumayya Kassamali, GSAS, who helped organize the event, said it was important to set the record straight following a widely circulated New York Post article that accused Columbia students of heckling an army veteran after he spoke in favor of ROTC at last week’s town hall.
“I want to talk instead on what the debates on campus have revealed, something that I find profoundly sad, which is the lack of space for any criticism of the military,” Kassamali said as she began her statement, drawing murmurs of approval from the otherwise quiet audience.
Daniela Garcia, CC ’11 and a panelist, detailed how she has been harassed by national media reporters since the Post’s story.
“We had a snowball thrown at us,” she said, noting that people asking her why she doesn’t support the military are asking the wrong questions.
“There’s a difference between military and militarism,” she said. “I don’t think any of the people I’m working with are advocating getting rid of the military at this time.”
Panelists also expressed concerns with the way the campus discussion has unfolded, claiming that the University Senate is trying to hurry the process, and that members have not been transparent about their decision-making.
Rosalind Morris, professor of anthropology and a panelist, said that students could benefit from more specifics on the ROTC program, and that having a military program on campus would signify a “symbolic transformation of the university.”
“Research and education—that is what a university is for,” Morris said. “The logic of the military should be pursued by the military, but not on campus. I am happy to have veterans in class. I am happy to have members of the military in the class when they are there as students, that is, not as soldiers.”
Fellow panelist Elizabeth Blackmar, a professor of history, agreed, saying that the anti-ROTC position is based on an aversion to institutionalizing the military at an independent university.
“I think there’s been this really big push to separate the issue of war and ROTC, which I don’t personally understand because the ROTC is a recruiting arm of the military,” Garcia said, disagreeing with a Spectator editorial that portrayed the return of ROTC as separate from ideological objections to war and the military.
“They show it as a neutral educational program, when obviously the main educational program of ROTC is to train soldiers to wage war,” she said.
Kassamali noted that Columbia already has ties to the military, such as labs for defense research and West Point lecturers with visiting professorships.
“I am fully aware of their entrenchment at Columbia,” she said, calling the debate a way to open up the issue of Columbia’s overall association to the military.
Blackmar also said that she took particular offense at suggestions in the Spectator editorial that inviting ROTC back will increase the economic diversity on campus and give students an opportunity to foster tolerance in the military.
“The military does not exist to foster tolerance to people of different lifestyles, it serves to defend the nation,” Blackmar said, adding that increasing economic diversity in the student body is the role of the administration and the idea that Columbia students could increase tolerance within the military is “condescending.”
Advocates for ROTC’s return also attended the discussion, including Learned Foote, CC ’11 and Columbia College Student Council president, who said he enjoyed hearing the arguments.
“I think what’s essential to note is that students who participate in ROTC are not barred in their participation from the Columbia educational experience, so I don’t think that there is a conflict between the ROTC education and the Columbia education,” Foote said.
The panel “highlights how little both sides know about each other and how much more dialogue is needed about what it means to have an ROTC program outside of the Senate hearings,” said University senator and veteran Jose Robledo, GS, in an email.
The third and final University Senate hearing will take place tonight.
Finn Vigeland contributed reporting.