If Harvard Talks, Will the Military Listen?

Mobilizing Higher Education

With student pressure mounting over the last year, many college administrators around the country are slowly realizing that the military's policy of excluding gays and lesbians runs counter to their school's non-discrimination policies.

Already, students or faculty at Kansas, Michigan State, Western Illinois, Nebraska, Oregon and Wisconsin have registered their formal complaints with the military, particuarly attacking the exclusion of gays and lesbians from the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).

Now, Cambridge's two leading universities have jumped on the bandwagon, and activists are hoping their clout is enough to push the military to change its long-standing policy.

Twenty-one years after it officially banned ROTC from campus, the Harvard Faculty Wednesday looked at the program again--with a different issue in mind. The Faculty Council voted to issue a formal statement condemning the military's policy, and some professors even suggested the council may move to ban all Harvard students from participating in the ROTC program.

Harvard's move came just days after MIT Provost John M. Deutsch wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, reflecting similar sentiments and wielding similar veiled threats.

In Washington, many military policy experts are skeptical about such efforts.

For instance, Lt. Col. Piers M. Wood, director of the Center for Defense Information, says that Harvard and other schools should push for legislation to change the rules, rather than antagonize the military.

"I don't think [Harvard's method] is the way to influence the military. For instance, if you want to influence university policy, is it really the best method to occupy the dean's office and leave the trustees alone?" he says. "You don't coerce the instruments of power--you coerce the wielders of power."

But even those closely connected to the legislative process say Congressional pressure holds out little hope.

Kate Dyer, and aide to Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.), says legislative action is often an "ineffective" way to change discriminatory policies.

And while a bill currently in the works, HR-655, would make sexual orientation part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Dyer says it is highly unlikely the bill will ever pass the House.

"Historically, the military has been the leader in reversing discrimination. After it was integrated by executive order in 1948, it was almost 20 years until the Civil Rights Act passed," she notes. "I don't think that bill's going anywhere in the near future."

That's why Dyer and many others see the recent rise of campus activism as a pivotal step in changing the military's anti-gay policy.

"If Harvard and other universities create enough unrest, it's the best way to change things," she says. "I'm certain the policy will change before the year 2000."

Because 80 percent of military officers come from ROTC, Dyer says any impediments to the program erected by universities will be particularly harmful.