Columbia has reached an agreement with the U.S. Navy to officially recognize a Naval ROTC program on campus, University President Lee Bollinger said on Friday.
The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps has not been recognized by Columbia since 1969, when protests over the Vietnam War led to the dissolution of the University’s long-standing NROTC program. Bollinger told Spectator that the agreement marks a “historic turning point” for Columbia.
“The elimination of ROTC was a symbolic gesture of frustration and anger towards policies and practices that people strongly disagreed with,” Bollinger said. “And I think the sort of question now is, how do you engage in a more positive way given this opportunity.”
Columbia students enrolled in NROTC will participate in military training programs and classes through a consortium at the State University of New York Maritime College in the Bronx. Students could have participated in this NROTC program previously, but under the new agreement Columbia will give NROTC cadets academic credit for their work. There are currently no Columbia NROTC cadets.
Navy spokesperson Tamara Lawrence said that it is not unusual for a school to participate in NROTC through a nearby school with an already-established program. But the agreement will give NROTC a “very visible” presence at Columbia, she added.
“The ROTC program will certainly benefit from being at Columbia,” Lawrence said. “That is absolutely a relationship we’ll be able to open up and offer up some choices for students.”
Bollinger said that the University still has to work out the details of the NROTC program with the Navy.
“Even though a lot of this is symbolism, there are some practical things that are involved and figuring those out consistently with the community and Columbia’s academic standards is important,” he said.
A Columbia statement noted that Provost Claude Steele will lead a committee which will “oversee implementation of the ROTC program consistent with Columbia’s academic standards.”
The committee will likely decide what sort of academic credit to award to outside NROTC classes, as well as what space on campus cadets should be able to use. Lawrence said that under the new agreement, NROTC cadets will be able to meet with active-duty Navy and Marine Corps officers on Columbia’s campus to receive “mentorship and guidance.”
Military veteran and School of General Studies student Jose Robledo, who oversees training for all ROTC cadets in Manhattan, said that it is possible Columbia will institute its own ROTC-specific physical education courses, as some other schools participating in ROTC consortia have done. Columbia already gives ROTC cadets physical education credit for outside ROTC programming.
Robledo said he does not expect a sudden jump in NROTC enrollment, as it will take time for students who are interested in joining the military to start applying to Columbia.
“It’s not just about changing the culture at the University,” Robledo said. “It’s also the rest of the country and the rest of the world knowing that we have had an identity realignment.”
Before its ouster from campus in 1969, Columbia’s NROTC program trained more than 20,000 officers. Earlier this month, the University Senate authorized Bollinger to negotiate an ROTC return in a 51-17 vote.
The senate vote was preceded by a survey of students enrolled in Columbia College, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Barnard College, the School of General Studies, and the School of International and Public Affairs. Of the 19 percent of students who responded to the survey, 60 percent were in favor of an ROTC return.
“I really wanted to do what the community wanted to do,” Bollinger said. “So in that, I am pleased that the outcome is definite and points in the direction of reengagement.”
After the Senate vote authorizing him to negotiate with the military, Bollinger discussed the issue with the Council of Deans, who unanimously supported a formal recognition of NROTC.
Lawrence said that Columbia had been in discussions with the Navy about ROTC for “over a year.” Bollinger explained that he was initially approached about an NROTC return by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, but emphasized that an agreement was always contingent on the senate review process.
“I want to be very clear about this, nothing was done, it was always understood that whether this would in fact happen … was entirely dependent upon the outcome of the process,” Bollinger said. “So even though there were some discussions over time, they were in the form of ‘If this were the way it were to go on the campus, then what might happen in terms of the reengagement of Navy ROTC.’”
Bollinger said he has not been in discussions with the Army or Air Force about recognizing their ROTC programs. According to Army spokesman Mike Johnson, there are currently eight Columbia students enrolled in the Army ROTC program at nearby Fordham University.
Johnson said that the Army would discuss an ROTC program with Columbia if approached by the University. He noted that it generally costs $1.6 million to start a new ROTC program, and that the Army’s main consideration in making a decision is the ability to produce 12 to 15 new officers per year.
Over the last few years, opposition towards ROTC at Columbia had centered around the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which Congress repealed in December. Many argued that this policy, which had prohibited gay soldiers from serving openly in the military, was discriminatory.
The DADT repeal will not take effect until the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that it will not harm the military's readiness to respond to conflict, which is expected to happen later this year. According to the Columbia statement, NROTC will not be recognized on campus until the DADT repeal is official.
The statement also noted that Steele's committee will make sure that the NROTC program is consistent with Columbia’s nondiscrimination policy. Bollinger explained this to mean largely that the committee will ensure that no discrimination against gay students exists after DADT is fully repealed.
But some students have opposed an ROTC program at Columbia because of the military’s policy of barring transgender individuals from enlisting. Columbia’s nondiscrimination policy prohibits discrimination on the basis of “gender identity and expression.”
Bollinger said that the military policy is similar to DADT, calling it “something that affects people in ways that injure them.” But he said it was not enough reason not to invite NROTC back to Columbia.
“It’s just something that at this stage, all things considered—because the University community was fully aware of this, the Council of Deans was fully aware of this—that itself will not preclude having a relationship [with the military],” Bollinger said. “Nevertheless, like with other issues, we want to keep working on it.”
Avi Edelman, CC ’11 and president of Everyone Allied Against Homophobia, took issue with Bollinger’s comment. He noted that in 2005, Bollinger opposed ROTC’s return to Columbia on the grounds that it discriminated against gay students under DADT.
“My question for President Bollinger is, what does ‘all things considered mean,’ mean?” Edelman said, referring to the above quote. “Does it mean all things considered, there are enough gay and lesbian students to [merit] upholding our nondiscrimination policy, but not enough transgendered students?”
Edelman said that in a meeting with Columbia administrators before the senate vote, EAAH members were told that Associate Provost Susan Rieger, who deals with equal opportunity and affirmative action, would issue a statement concerning ROTC’s compliance with the University’s nondiscrimination policy. But the group has not yet heard from Rieger.
Gavin McGown, CC ’13, who identifies as transgender, said this comment from Bollinger upset him even more than the decision to recognize NROTC. McGown called DADT and the policy barring transgender individuals from serving “completely analogous” forms of discrimination.
“[Bollinger’s] comment…was just a really profoundly flippant, I felt, way of dealing with our concerns,” McGown said.
Robledo said that the military’s policy barring transgender individuals is an “important issue,” but that barring ROTC from campus is not the solution.
“If the system is wrong you engage it and fix it,” Robledo said. “That’s the bottom line.”