After DADT, Should Colleges Welcome Back ROTC?

The “imminent demise” of the U.S. military’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy is no longer imminent. This development has many speculating about the prospects of bringing Reserve Officer Training Programs (ROTC) back on college campuses, with some leaders eager to welcome them after decades of frosty relations. At Harvard, President Drew Gilpin Faust was quick to pledge discussions “to achieve Harvard’s full and formal recognition of ROTC.” As DADT was often cited as the main reason some universities persisted in refusing to recognize ROTC, must they now welcome ROTC back?

No. The mere fact that DADT is gone does not require universities to revive ROTC; there are a number of considerations they can legitimately weigh in making that decision. As they consider ROTC's return, however, universities' own stated commitments to free speech and association can provide a compelling argument in favor of reinstatement.

There are academic and financial considerations universities can address when considering reviving ROTC on their campuses. Whether ROTC classes such as leadership education and military science should be given academic credit, for example, is a matter of the university’s academic freedom, and something on which universities and the military have clashed mightily in the past.

Universities can also legitimately consider whether enough demand exists to justify the costs of reestablishing a program, which may be no simple question. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, for example, points out that at Harvard (which has not had its own ROTC since 1969), only four undergraduate cadets are participating in Army ROTC. At Yale, it is only one. (Cadets at schools without ROTC programs train at nearby schools that do have them, such as MIT or the University of New Haven). The military will face tough financial decisions about whether to establish ROTC at these institutions, given the historically low interest generated there, compared with other institutions.

Meanwhile, moral objections to ROTC’s presence on the part of individuals in the university community will linger long after DADT’s demise. Universities can and do determine what values they cherish and which ones they hope their students will come to value. Almost invariably, the values of open inquiry and exposure to competing cultures and viewpoints are high on the list, as is the freedom of association that allows students to organize around a shared purpose — including devotion to military service.

This is where universities’ longstanding arguments against ROTC ring hollow. As Harvey Silverglate, co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Our universities are, by their own claim (indeed, boast), bound by notions of academic freedom and free choice. It ill behooves such institutions to usurp and micromanage the ideological and personal choices of students.”

At worst, this kind of “micromanagement” could be grossly unconstitutional. The push to enforce politicized values at supposedly free universities takes shocking forms. At the University of Delaware in 2007, for example, residence life administrators forced a highly politicized program on their students to coerce them into adopting university-approved viewpoints on deeply personal issues — for example, by compelling students to discuss their sexual orientation in one-on-one meetings with resident assistants. The abundance of speech codes on campuses across the nation, meanwhile, has had the effect of chilling “politically incorrect” speech, for risk of being charged with “harassment.”

Colleges reconsidering the place of ROTC following DADT’s repeal have several factors to weigh, but no less important than academic and financial matters are their own commitments to diversity — the very commitments they have previously used to exclude ROTC. Universities now can take this moment to consider how seriously they take these commitments, and whether they are really willing to give their students the freedom to make up their own minds as they pursue their education and development.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons

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Peter Bonilla

Peter Bonilla is the Director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; thefire.org), a nonprofit, non-partisan organization committed to defending the free speech and individual liberties of college students and faculty across the political and ideological spectrum. Peter worked as the literary manager of Philadelphia's InterAct Theatre Company prior to joining FIRE in 2008. Peter writes in his spare time, and has received a fellowship in playwriting from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Had he known a little bit more about the Statue of Liberty, he would have made a nice sum of money on 'Jeopardy!' in 2009. His B.A., in Theater Arts and Economics, is from the University of Pennsylvania. An expatriate of Washington, DC, he lives in Philadelphia.

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