ROTC: A Workable Compromise

After five years of debate, President Neil L. Rudenstine has proposed a plan that has the potential to end the long ROTC saga that has left rights groups bitter and supporters of ROTC in suspense.

The battle over ROTC has always been a clash of values. In the late 1960s, when Harvard students stormed University buildings in an attempt to force ROTC off campus, the clash was over Vietnam and the role of the military in our society. On one side stood those who felt the war was evil and that the military, as the agent of that war, was evil as well. On the other side stood those who felt the military was a necessary institution, and one that should not be denied the contributions of Harvard students.

In 1990, when the latest round of controversy began, the clash was over the military's discrimination against homosexuals. The gay ban prompted many, including the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Students Association (BGLSA) to demand that the University sever ties with the military training program.

Their argument was simple: Harvard policy prohibits the University from sanctioning discrimination. Therefore, Harvard is precluded, by its own rules, from funding a discriminatory program such as ROTC. On the other side were those who felt it would be an injustice of its own to disallow Harvard students from participating in the program.

In the latest development, Rudenstine has fashioned a compromise that recognizes both Harvard's opposition to discrimination and the freedom of students to choose service in the military.

The Rudenstine plan ends direct University subsidies of the MIT-based ROTC program, thus meeting the strict requirements of the Harvard non-discrimination policy. At the same time, to keep the ROTC option open for students, Rudenstine has allowed several University alumni to make voluntary, supposedly unsolicited contributions to cover the costs. Provided there is no difficulty in keeping the funds coming, the effect of the plan should be negligible on current and future ROTC students.

The compromise is not flawless. The distinction between the current payment plan and the new plan is a fine one, and to many will ring false. The University, after all, will retain significant control over the nominally independent ROTC fund. Thus, a good idea, we think, would be to go even further: Harvard could, for example, hand over control of ROTC funds to somebody not directly affiliated with the University--perhaps a Harvard graduate with experience in financial management. This would ensure a clean break between Harvard and ROTC funding, since the checks wouldn't even bear the University's name.

But in the larger picture, the compromise allows Harvard to state its unequivocal opposition to the gay ban without creating an injustice of its own--depriving students of the right to participate in ROTC. That the military discriminates against gays is not the fault of Harvard students. And Harvard students should not be punished for the sins of our political leaders.

When considered in the light of the other choices Rudenstine faced, the compromise stands even taller.

In 1992, the Faculty called on the Harvard president to end the University's $130,000 subvention to MIT and to seek "arrangements that would preserve the opportunity for individual Harvard students to participate in ROTC."

While Rudenstine appeared to have several options in order to cut those ties, he was in fact quite constrained. One option was to require ROTC students themselves to foot the bill. Department of Defense regulations prohibit any such requirement, however.

The University also tried to convince MIT to pay the relatively small sum itself. MIT refused for the time being. Some other way had to be found.

Of course to many, these choices--outlined in a report on ROTC drafted by a committee headed by Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba '53--offered a false choice. Why not simply cut all ties, even if that meant that Harvard students couldn't participate? It's a matter of principle, after all.

What this interpretation ignores is that there are more than just one set of rights involved. The right of homosexual students to serve is an important right and one we firmly support. But, as the Verba report recognized, to end the availability of ROTC altogether would infringe on the rights of those students interested in the military option.

And that would be an injustice. ROTC is one of the principal paths of entry to the military for college students. Indeed, in an era of military cutbacks, it is the only way for many.

Moreover, the availability of ROTC makes Harvard a more diverse place; without it, many students interested in a military career would be driven away. In a broader sense, keeping ROTC ensures a flow of Harvard students into the military. And it is these students who are most likely to change the military from the inside.

Ending all ties would be a symbol of Harvard's stand against discrimination. Symbols are fine--they are often very powerful. But a symbol must obey the dictum "do no harm." Cutting all ties would do much harm.

Even staunch opponents of the gay ban recognized some virtue in the compromise. "It's progress," said BGLSA co-chair Moon Duchin '97. "Financially, Harvard is washing its hands of it."

Compromise often gets a bad rap--it is easily portrayed as capitulation. In this case though, the compromise appears workable, and pursuing it seems a wiser choice than taking any unreasonable action.