Exactly four months after President Barack Obama signed the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy into law, Columbia officially recognized an ROTC program for the first time in over four decades.
The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps had not been recognized by Columbia since 1969, when protests over the Vietnam War led to the dissolution of the University’s long-standing Naval ROTC program. But following a campus-wide debate this spring semester, the University Senate voted overwhelmingly to support the program’s return.
“The elimination of ROTC was a symbolic gesture of frustration and anger towards policies and practices that people strongly disagreed with,” University President Lee Bollinger told Spectator last month, after announcing that NROTC would be recognized by Columbia. “And I think the sort of question now is, how do you engage in a more positive way given this opportunity.”
Although ROTC was originally ousted due to anti-military sentiment, opposition in recent years has centered on the DADT policy, which had barred gay men and women from serving openly in the military.
Just days after Congress passed the DADT repeal, the University Senate announced the formation of a task force to review the military’s relationship with Columbia.
The Task Force on Military Engagement hosted three University-wide town halls in February to discuss ROTC. The task force also surveyed students 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, finding 60 percent of respondents supportive of ROTC and 33 percent unsupportive.
Proponents of an ROTC return, including astronomy professor and task force member Jim Applegate, said that instituting the program would benefit Columbia students, both those who already participate in ROTC through other schools’ programs, and those who might now be encouraged to sign up.
“If you evaluate this based on the contributions to education at Columbia, it’s a straightforward yes vote,” Applegate said in January.
Some ROTC opponents argued that the program’s return would amount to a militarization of Columbia’s campus, and others made the case that ROTC would violate the University’s nondiscrimination policy because the military continues to bar transgender individuals from enlisting.
Gavin McGown, CC ’13, who identifies as transgender, said last month that the University should apply the nondiscrimination policy in the same way for transgender students that it had for gay students before the DADT repeal.
“If you have a policy that you affirm in nine out of every 10 cases and you don’t affirm it in the one case, in what sense is that actually the policy?” McGown asked.
The town hall debates were civil on the whole, although not without tense moments. At the second town hall, veteran Anthony Maschek, GS, who was awarded a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq, was heckled after saying, “Other parts of the world are plotting to kill you right now when you go to bed. It’s not a joke … these people, seriously, are trying to kill you. They hate America, they hate you.”
Many students applauded Maschek, but several booed or shouted “racist,” leading to media coverage portraying Columbia as unfriendly toward veterans. But Maschek later said in a statement that this is not the case, noting Columbia’s efforts to attract more veterans.
“Comments by a small number of individuals at the town hall meeting have not changed my positive experiences at Columbia,” Maschek said.
On April 1, the senate voted 51-17 to authorize Bollinger to negotiate ROTC’s return to Columbia. Exactly three weeks later, Bollinger announced that Columbia would officially recognize NROTC.
Columbia NROTC midshipmen will be able to participate in the NROTC consortium at the State University of New York Maritime College in the Bronx, and Columbia will give NROTC midshipmen academic credit for their work.
Columbia was not the only school to invite ROTC back to its campus this year. Harvard University officially recognized NROTC in March, and Stanford University and Yale University might be next, with faculty bodies at both schools voting in support of ROTC in the last few weeks.
Applegate said last month that Columbia’s ROTC debate was often messy, but was worth having.
“This is not a terribly complicated issue. We got to the core of it and we made our decision,” he said. “Everything worked. This is the way it’s supposed to work. It’s not always neat, it’s not always easy, but it worked.”