For 42 years, the University banned all military activities on campus, including the Reserve Officers' Training Corps. This past Thursday, that ban was lifted. Students raised the flag of the United States in honor of Veterans Day, and six members of the ROTC program at Fordham will continue to raise the flag every Monday at dawn. These are students from Columbia's various undergraduate schools who participate in the Fordham program because ROTC does not operate at Columbia. That the administration allowed this ceremony to take place and that the student body raised no outcry suggests a meaningful change in the University's historically tense relationship with the military. It is not merely that Columbia banned ROTC from campus in the 1960s, as many other universities did the same. What sets Columbia apart—particularly from other schools that do not have ROTC programs—is that its students cannot receive credit for participation in another school's ROTC program. Furthermore, unlike other schools, Columbia has not changed its policy since its implementation 42 years ago. But Columbia is not the same school that it was four decades ago. The undergraduates here are no longer the members of Students for a Democratic Society who took over buildings to express their discontent, and our relationship with the military has changed dramatically since 1968. We are, if not more tolerant, then certainly more temperate. And while valid concerns have been articulated in the debate surrounding the return of ROTC to campus—most notably the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which was implemented in 1993 and, in more recent years, has become the primary argument for not bringing the program back—the administration, faculty, and students at Columbia are operating under false pretenses if they do not adjust our relationship with the military accordingly. Name-calling, polarization, and refusing to acknowledge that the times are indeed changing will not suffice. The issue of ROTC on campus will not be resolved soon. It is tied to a larger national debate about "don't ask, don't tell," as well as to the current function of the military and the extent and implications of U.S. military action around the world. Even if the University Senate were to decide to reintroduce ROTC—which, again, does not seem to be imminent in any sense—the actual implementation would take years of coordination with the Department of Defense. Because the policy itself will almost certainly remain in place for the foreseeable future, the debate surrounding ROTC on campus is largely symbolic. Within that debate, however, can exist smaller, more immediate, more tangible symbols that acknowledge that the issue is, like Columbia and its relationship to the military and the national government, evolving and changing. The flag-raising ceremony is one such symbol. We do not know when, if ever, ROTC will be brought back to Columbia, but we do know that Columbia is as much a university in America as it is in New York City. We know that there is a distinction between glorifying the military and recognizing our individual classmates who served. And we know that, last Thursday, the flag was raised quietly and without student uproar or classroom seizure. It's possible that nobody knew, or that nobody cared, about Thursday's ceremony. But it's also possible that we recognized that those six students quietly raising the flag at dawn were our peers raising our flag. They are our classmates at this university, not at the Columbia of 1968 that gave soldiers the cold shoulder. Time and time again, we have urged Columbia to listen to its students. On Thursday, the U.S. flag was raised at Columbia to a respectful silence. It's worth listening to that, too.
Columbia Spectator Staff