This article is the second in a two-part series examining the return of ROTC to Columbia. Read the first part here.
When the University Senate voted to reinstate a Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program at Columbia at the end of the 2010-2011 school year, it would be nearly 18 months before the program showed any signs of activity on campus. The many Columbians who vocally opposed the return interpreted the year of silence as inaction.
“My sense was last year that it was primarily a symbolic win and there didn’t seem to be much interest in the establishment of a fully functioning program,” said GSAS student Sumayya Kassamali, who spoke out against NROTC in 2011.
Until Thursday, she had not realized that NROTC students were already on campus or that officials from the Navy and Marine Corps were holding regular office hours in a new space in Lerner. But she said her concerns regarding the re-establishment of a military presence to Columbia’s campus remained.
“That is still a concern and that concern is not going to change, and that will not change how visible or invisible NROTC is,” she said.
The fact that NROTC’s rollout has gone largely unnoticed is perhaps why there has been no uproar on campus. “We haven’t seen anything” in terms of pushback, said Major Javier Garcia, a Marine officer instructor at SUNY Maritime, which hosts Columbia’s ROTC classes.
And as NROTC settles into the campus culture, administrators are already looking to grow the program and add Army and Air Force ROTC.
‘The issue is still real’
The legacy of the ROTC debate remains in many students’ and professors’ minds. The University agreed to reinstate NROTC after the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which prevented gay men and women from serving openly in the military, but one of students’ most prominent objections was that transgender people are still not allowed to serve openly.
“The problem of the University associating with an institution that violates the non-discrimination policy ... is still there,” Gavin McGown, CC ’13 and president of GendeRevolution, a transgender support and advocacy group, said. “The issue is still real. In one case the administration was willing to stand up, in another the administration was not. What it comes down to is that the administration doesn’t care.”
Kassamali also remains hostile to the program. “The argument always was what we described as the militarization of the academy,” she said. “The University is a space of intellectual debate and not just a place where opinions come together, but there is an ethical commitment. We are concerned that this [NROTC] doesn’t even express public opinion, but reframes the University as an elite institution that acquiesces to those in power, i.e. the government, the military.”
Leaders of queer student groups voiced concern at the prospect of the program growing.
“If the program were to expand, I would hope there would be more dialogues on campus ... between everyone who is really involved with this,” Marita Inglehart, CC ’14 and president of Columbia Queer Alliance, said. “I would hope that there would be more active responses.”
“If this program were to become more prominent ... it would effectively have a more central role in the tableau of the University. It would send a very blatant message,” said McGown, who identifies as transgender.
Despite these sentiments, those involved in the program have not experienced hostility on campus. “You kind of expect it coming here,” Patrick Poorbaugh, GS and an active-duty Marine said, “but I haven’t really felt it at all.”
Poorbaugh said that while his first thoughts of Columbia as an institution where he could advance his military career came in the wake of national media coverage of the NROTC debate, he often comes across people who do not even know that the program has returned to campus.
Jose Delgado, GS and a United States Navy sailor participating in the program, agreed. “I’m not so sure people are thinking about it as much as they used to. And if they are, I haven’t been aware of it.”
He added, “I think Columbia is kind of the example of being supportive of the military, especially when you compare them with their peers.”
McGown, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said that the only sign of NROTC’s return they had seen was an opinion column in Spectator this month.
“We feel very, very welcome here,” said Captain Matthew Loughlin, the commanding officer of the NROTC program at SUNY Maritime. He said he did not think that opponents of the program had been outspoken, “and if they are, they’ve been extremely cordial in their interactions with us.”
But according to Kassamali, the situation is very different. “It’s a huge disappointment to see this being officially recognized and the fact that there’s an office and that there’s a concrete space on campus—it kind of feels like moving backward,” she said.
‘Word will get out’
In spite of any lasting opposition, spoken or unspoken, administrators and NROTC students believe the program will grow. Vice Provost for Academic Administration Stephen Rittenberg, the senior administrator most responsible for the program, said he is looking to expand the program to Army and Air Force ROTC.
“I think the word will get out. It will inevitably grow to a natural size, probably limited by the demographic of [Columbia] College,” Loughlin said. Of Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Science students, only first-years and sophomores are eligible.
Loughlin said he thinks the presence of NROTC on campus could be mutually beneficial to both institutions. “I would hope there would be some highly qualified applicants who will choose to apply to Columbia because we have ROTC here and, obviously, the Navy benefits from the academic caliber of this institution,” he said.
“I have no sense of what [size] is ideal,” Rittenberg said. “I would hope that it would expand. I would hope that high school seniors who are interested in a career in the Navy would see Columbia as a place that they would really want to come to and, similarly, that enlisted personnel in the Navy and the Marines would see this as a place where they could not only pursue their ambitions of becoming officers, but really get a college education.”
Loughlin and his staff are already talking to a few current Columbia students about affiliating with the unit next semester and will be holding an additional orientation program this January to welcome those students.
“We’ve got a lot of interested students who have come up to us and are interested in joining the unit,” Garcia, the SUNY Maritime officer, said. Still, he stressed that neither the program nor the office sees recruitment as its purpose.
Jeffrey Kysar, the chair of the faculty and student committee that advised the provost’s office on the implementation of NROTC, said that there is no official quota for the unit. “Our goal is to have a robust and long-term program and making sure that it is available to students who want military careers,” he said.
Rittenberg said that while informal cross-town agreements for Army and Air Force cadets exist between Columbia and other units in New York, the University has already begun discussions with the Air Force about bringing a ROTC unit to Columbia.
“Once we are settled with Naval ROTC, we do want to turn our attention to Army and Air Force ROTC,” Rittenberg said. “Some of the things that we are deciding for the Naval ROTC students would be equally appropriate to Air Force ROTC, others would not.”
“We’re not as far along with Army,” Rittenberg added, “but we are intending to get there.”
LeTicia Brown, SEAS ’14 and an Army cadet, said that she thought expanding the program would be a good thing. “I think it would be great to have more of a military community on campus,” she said.
Brown is one of five undergraduate students who participate informally in either Army ROTC at Fordham University or Air Force ROTC at Manhattan College. Most Columbia students she knows are not aware of the program, Brown said.
It is sometimes a challenge balancing her military requirements with her responsibilities as a biomedical engineering major, she added.
Rittenberg characterized the official return of the military to Columbia as a revival of the University’s longstanding relationship with the military. During World War I, soldiers trained on fighter planes set up in Schermerhorn, and during World War II, temporary classroom buildings were set up behind Low to handle the influx of soldiers, Rittenberg said.
But Kassamali has a very different perspective on the past. For her, the program’s new office space “is a reminder of some of the importance of the University as a site of political struggle and debate.”
“It’s easy to consider the debates we have as solely academic conversations,” she said. “It serves as a reminder that the stakes are really high.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story quoted Sumayya Kassamali as saying, “The argument always was what we described as the military vision of the academy.” In fact, she said, “The argument always was what we described as the militarization of the academy.” Spectator regrets the error.