The Association of American Universities (AAU) has joined members of Congress and several major colleges in calling on the Pentagon to explain why it excludes gays and lesbians from the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).
In a letter to Defense Secretary Richard Cheney sent yesterday, the AAU and three other major college organizations said they were concerned "about the practice of discrimination by ROTC units on the basis of sexual orientation."
Although the groups stopped short of condemning the Pentagon's longstanding policy barring gays from military service, they said that arguments against the policy seemed "compelling" and requested a meeting with Cheney to discuss the issue.
"Denial of equal opportunity on the grounds of race, gender, religion, nationality or political affiliation (among other possible criteria) has long since been barred," the letter said. "Discrimination based on sexual orientation thus remains a curious anomaly."
The AAU, a Washington-based organization that represents schools across the nation, decided to draft the letter at a regular meeting on April 30, in response to a recent wave of protest against the military's policy by several major colleges.
The letter was also endorsed by the American Council on Education, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.
On April 10, MIT Provost John M. Deutch sent a personal letter to Cheney, in which he said many schools might end their ROTC programs if the exclusionary policy did not change. Earlier this spring, the University of Wisconsin faculty voted to end its assocation with ROTC, although the state's Board of Regents subsequently reversed the decision, decision.
And two weeks ago, Harvard's Faculty Council voted to sever the University's remaining ties with ROTC in two years unless the military starts allowing gays and lesbians to serve.
The universities' actions were given added impetus by the military's recent decisions to demand repayment of ROTC scholarship money from three cadets discharged for their sexual orientation. On two separate occasions, members of Congress sent letters to Cheney slamming the Pentagon for seeking repayment.
But even with such pressure already mounting, some observers say the AAU's statement could play a critical role in forcing a change in the military's policy.
"It's outstanding and an important first step for this group of very important organizations," said Kate Dyer, legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Gary Studds (D-Mass.), who has lobbied for changes in the policy.
Even though the AAU cautiously avoided actually condemning the military's policy, Dyer said she was not disappointed with the letter's tone.
"It's important not to just bash ROTC," Dyer said. "Once they've given the military a chance to respond to their concerns, then they can say they condemn the policy."
Dyer said a senior Pentagon official would probably meet with the AAU, but that she was uncertain whether that official would be Cheney himself.
Pentagon spokespersons could not be reached comment late yesterday afternoon.