I was pleased to read Ryan Cho’s column last week, “Where’s ROTC again?” in which he convincingly probed the invisibility of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps on campus. I admit, I had no idea where their office was (or that they had one) until I read the comments under Ryan’s piece. The debate over whether or not ROTC should return to campus was a bitter and divisive one. How it has virtually disappeared from campus discourse only two years later is mind-boggling. On the one hand, I am relieved to see the angry drum-beating rabble outside Columbia’s President’s House and self-righteous Spec op-eds gone—on the other, I am disheartened. The debate itself raised important questions about the relationship between Columbia and service. To paraphrase Admiral Mike Mullen, the “best and brightest” cannot continue to see themselves as “above” public service.
Amid all the talk of the gap between the rich and poor, the human element is lost. We tend to imagine this divide as a numerical one: Gini coefficients, who pays X percent in taxes, the amount the real wages for the bottom quintile have risen. But the greatest divide will always be a cultural one. The notion that serving in the armed forces is for the “lower classes” is one deeply embedded in our society. Perhaps this is an inevitable result of the professionalization of the armed forces—it is an all-volunteer contingent, after all. I should confess some bias: Two of my siblings are currently serving, one as a newly minted second lieutenant in the Air Force and one as a private first class in the Marines. Whenever I hear that the service is “predatory,” or a place for those with devilish sadistic tendencies who couldn’t function in “real society,” it strikes very close to home. Certainly, the worst war crimes committed in Iraq or Afghanistan have had less impact than predatory banking practices, a career path decidedly more popular for Columbians.
Regardless, most people join the armed forces out of a sense of service to country, the desire to give back. And how do we treat those who wish to do so? By exiling them to some forgotten corner on the first floor of Lerner. The signals the school’s administration (and student body) are sending could not be more clear. Goldman Sachs gets a conference room named after it in the Center for Career Education, while ROTC gets zero campus visibility and a cramped office that (I would posit) few of us knew existed. All of this is made more outrageous by the fact that ROTC grants scholarships and aid, along with the manifold career benefits offered by the armed services. It is a shame that Columbia would turn its back on such a driver of upward social mobility.
Unfortunately, this negative attitude toward public service is not limited to ROTC. Expressing an interest in a teaching career is judged as lacking ambition—unless, of course, that career is a two-year stint in Teach For America to pad the résumé before applying to law school. While the critique of CCE as a resource only for jobs in consulting and finance is tired, there is an element of truth to it nonetheless. But this should not be surprising given the general antipathy toward jobs in public service, which are perceived as underpaid and (as a result) not prestigious. In a hypercompetitive environment like Columbia, these careers get shoved under the rug.
The low priority Columbia gives to potential service members is a slap in the face to those who already have served. Columbia has actively sought to recruit veterans: Through the School of General Studies, Columbia currently enrolls more veterans than any other Ivy League school. I can say from personal experience that they are the single most driven group of students with whom I have studied. Why, then, does Columbia continue to discourage this career option among students in the other undergraduate schools? Columbia should send a clear message that it stands behind our men and women in uniform while doing more to encourage students to explore other areas of public service.
I can understand the fear of resurrecting the specter of the ROTC debate. But I argue that this debate is one worth having, if only because it forces us to deal with the larger question of the relationship between service and Columbia. Do we continue to view public service as an occupation solely for those who couldn’t get high-paying jobs in the private sector? The profit incentive is a strong one—we shouldn’t fault those who follow it. Rather, let’s salute those who devote their lives to service by giving them the respect they deserve.
Andrew Godinich is a Columbia College senior majoring in sociology and Portuguese studies. He is treasurer of Students For Education Reform. Too Be Frank runs alternate Mondays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.