Pocketbook Patriotism

Editorial Notebook

Apparently, advocates of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) have been using the wrong tactics all this time. Instead of arguing that the University has a patriotic obligation to support the students who serve in ROTC, they should have found a wealthy patron. When it comes to pressuring the University, money seems to have a lot more influence than patriotism.

Robert C. Clark, Dean of Harvard Law School, recently announced that the school would rescind its policy of not allowing sanctioned visits by military recruiters because of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which discriminates against homosexuals. The law school did not change its stance willingly; in accordance with a law that requires colleges to provide adequate access to military recruiters, the Air Force was threatening to recommend the cancellation of Harvard’s federal funding, which would have cost the University a tidy sum—$328 million, a whopping 16 percent of the University’s total operating budget.

At stake in this decision were two worthy but competing values: upholding the law school’s anti-discrimination policy, and preserving Harvard’s federal funding. In the memo announcing the change, Clark wrote, “To say that this decision is just about money trivializes the significance these funds have on students’ educations, faculty careers, and scientific research that can lead to cures to life-threatening illnesses and debilitating diseases.” This reasoning, though attractive, obscures the issue. If Harvard’s funding had been cut off, these life-saving dollars wouldn’t have disappeared—they most likely would have gone to other top research institutions, while Harvard would have lost 16 percent of its budget.

So Clark made the right decision: he sacrificed the law school’s policy in order to save Harvard’s funding. He realized that protesting the military’s discriminatory policy is important, but it can hardly be allowed to trump all other priorities.

At the College, the situation is remarkably similar, yet the outcome has been far different. Since 1995, Harvard students who have traveled to MIT to participate in ROTC have had their expenses covered by alumni donations, independent of the University. President Lawrence H. Summers, who has made several commendable and courageous overtures to ROTC, has called this arrangement “uncomfortable” and “unorthodox”—but so far he has not changed it.

Here, again, there are two worthy but competing values: upholding the College’s non-discrimination policy, and patriotism. Patriotism is a touchy word at Harvard, even around Sept. 11, but few disagree that America’s soldiers pursue a noble career—they risk their lives to protect the democracy, the freedom, and the security that we cherish. And if homosexuals were allowed to serve openly in the military, then presumably the University would welcome ROTC and its students with open arms—after all, the point of protesting “don’t ask, don’t tell” is to allow everyone the opportunity to defend America.

Harvard’s choices say a lot about it as an institution. When federal funding is on the line, the anti-discrimination policy is reluctantly brushed aside. But when mere patriotism is at stake, funding for ROTC doesn’t stand a chance.

It’s not terribly surprising, but still deeply disturbing, that Harvard values its pocketbook more than patriotism.