This article is the first in a two-part series examining the return of ROTC to Columbia. Read the second part here.
Every Wednesday, General Studies student Jose Delgado puts on his khaki naval uniform and heads to the State University of New York Maritime College in the Bronx to participate in a Navy “Leadership Lab.” He is joined by about 140 other NROTC students from across the city.
When he returns to Columbia’s campus in the afternoon, his tan suit and decorated jacket don’t quite fit in.
“On days when I wear my uniform, people look at you,” Delgado said. “But that happens everywhere.”
Delgado, who has been an active-duty sailor in the United States Navy for 11 years, is participating in Columbia’s first Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program since 1969. Following decades of debate, deliberation, and, finally, planning, the training program for military officers is back on campus.
The first two NROTC students, including Delgado, arrived at Columbia this summer. There are now four students—three in the School of General Studies and one in Columbia College—enrolled in the program, which is run through a consortium at SUNY Maritime.
And even if the sight of the uniform is unfamiliar, NROTC students say they feel welcome at Columbia.
“It’s pretty obvious that people care that we’re here and are going out of their way to help us,” Patrick Poorbaugh, GS, said. “They have done everything to make it easier for us.”
‘Perfect for somebody like me’
Columbia once had a thriving NROTC program, but it was dissolved in 1969, following student protests over the Vietnam War. At the time, about 100 NROTC students were enrolled at Columbia.
But nearly two years ago—after Congress repealed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which prevented gay men and women from serving openly—the University Senate began debating whether it was time for ROTC to return. The senate voiced its approval of ROTC in a 51-17 vote, and shortly thereafter, the University and the Navy reached an agreement on a NROTC program.
The program’s inaugural students say that it’s going smoothly so far, even though they have to commute to the Bronx for classes and physical training. Poorbaugh, an active-duty Marine who commutes to SUNY Maritime three times per week, said that Columbia professors have been flexible about his schedule.
For Delgado, returning to school after 11 years in the Navy was the toughest part of the transition.
“I’m starting to get a hang of it now, but at first, the workload was tough,” he said. “But, the Navy—the military in general—does prepare you to take on a challenge.”
Columbia’s NROTC program serves two types of students—traditional undergraduates, who commit to serving in the Navy or Marines after they graduate, but also active-duty soldiers like Delgado and Poorbaugh. These service members can attend the School of General Studies through the Seaman to Admiral-21 program or the Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program, both of which give them the chance to attend school full-time and then return to the military after graduation as commissioned officers.
“The balance has been great—a lot easier than I thought it was,” said Poorbaugh, who is in his seventh year of active-duty service. While he attended community college in the past, he said that he enjoys studying at a liberal arts university.
“It feels great, obviously. It’s a change of pace, but I love it,” he said.
The admissions process for NROTC consists of two application reviews, one by the Navy or Marines and one by Columbia. Delgado said that Columbia—and GS specifically—was flexible throughout the process, allowing him to apply early and then defer for a semester.
The School of General Studies, Delgado said, has been a particularly good fit for him. “I didn’t originally think of Columbia,” he said. “Of course I always held it in high esteem, but I didn’t think it was an option until I found this GS school, which is perfect for somebody like me.”
‘Very, very accommodating’
The ease of Delgado and Poorbaugh’s transitions to Columbia is partly a result of extensive planning and preparation by the University. Last November, Provost John Coatsworth established a committee to advise his office on the implementation of the NROTC program, and it has been working for the last year to put all the pieces together.
The committee members—six professors and two students—have been working with Vice Provost for Academic Administration Stephen Rittenberg, who is overseeing NROTC’s implementation at Columbia, and Amber Griffiths, Columbia’s manager of Military & Veteran Affairs. For the most part, that has meant examining other universities with similar programs and dealing with questions of academic credit.
The Committee on Instruction for Columbia College and GS is also reviewing some NROTC courses, and can submit suggestions to SUNY Maritime for ways in which those courses might be adjusted to meet Columbia requirements.
“We’re doing our best to maximize the number of classes that could be given credit at Columbia, but we’re being realistic that it’s not going to be all of them,” said Captain Matthew Loughlin, the commanding officer of the NROTC program at SUNY Maritime.
Mandatory classes cover naval ship systems, leadership and management, leadership and ethics, and navigation, Loughlin said.
Meanwhile, NROTC officials are setting up shop on campus. According to mechanical engineering Professor Jeffrey Kysar, the chair of the advisory committee, the biggest challenge so far was finding an office for NROTC officials—a problem that was solved when Columbia transformed a space on the first floor of Lerner Hall that had previously housed vending machines and computers into an office.
“We want to have as much presence here as we can,” Loughlin said. Military personnel from SUNY Maritime hold office hours at Columbia four days per week, answering questions students might have about the program, and Loughlin said that he hopes to be on campus personally at least once a week.
“We understand that our presence here is going to be disproportionate to the number of students we have here for a while, because it’s so important for us to be here—to interact in a natural manner with the entire community here at Columbia,” he said.
Major Javier Garcia, a Marine officer instructor at SUNY Maritime, noted that the office space Columbia has reserved for NROTC is unique—most other affiliate schools, such as Fordham, do not have designated space on campus.
“The administration has been very, very accommodating to everyone’s request,” Garcia said.
The advisory committee includes both proponents and vocal opponents of the NROTC program. History professor Elizabeth Blackmar agreed to serve on the committee even though she voted against ROTC in the University Senate last year.
“I still oppose ROTC on campus, but I was asked to serve on the committee and did so, because I think faculty with differing perspectives should participate in the oversight of any programs that intersect with the university’s educational mission,” Blackmar, who is on leave, said in an email.
The committee is scheduled to meet three times this semester, but after that, it’s unclear whether or not it will continue to exist. Rittenberg said he would like to see oversight of ROTC be given to the faculty as a whole, just like any other educational program.
“Perhaps most important in my mind is to come up with a structure that will provide ROTC with a place at the University, organizationally speaking,” Rittenberg said. “I’d like to see the advisory committee work its way out of existence to be replaced by some other structure for the oversight and supervision of the program.”
But however Columbia chooses to oversee it, NROTC is well on its way toward becoming a fixture on campus. Lieutenant Colonel Gregory Wynn, the executive officer responsible for NROTC at SUNY Maritime, emphasized how quickly the program has developed.
“When you look at how far we’ve come and the history behind it, to now have an office, regular office hours, students in the program—while we haven’t gone from zero to 100 miles an hour overnight, I think we’ve basically gone beyond what anyone had expected initially in the very first semester,” he said.