Fight Discrimination at All Costs

Harvard should stand strong on ROTC, even if it means losing federal funding

If the House of Representatives has its way, Harvard may soon face an important but difficult decision on its policy of barring the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program: make an exception in its long-standing anti-discrimination policy to allow the military to gain an official campus foothold, or lose heaps of federal funding. In this instance, although the cost to Harvard is potentially immense, the University has a responsibility to stand up for its principles. It must not be strong-armed by the federal government into providing for a blatantly discriminatory organization on campus.

On March 30, the House of Representatives approved the ROTC and Military Recruiter Equal Access to Campus Act of 2004 by a 4-1 margin. If passed into law by the Senate, as some politicos have predicted it will be before the November election, the bill stands poised to require schools to let ROTC through their doors. As the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Christopher Cox, R-CA, a former Faculty member of the Harvard Business School, has noted, it “might just as well be called the Harvard Act” since most other schools have capitulated to ROTC or made clear their willingness to reject government funding if it comes to that. If Harvard refuses, the bill threatens to strip the University of all funding from the Departments of Homeland Security, Energy, Transportation and the Central Intelligence Agency. According to Kevin Casey, the University’s Federal Relations chief, the cost would likely amount to over $400 million.

In a blunt way, the act forces Harvard to face the practical reality of its policy barring ROTC. Since the bill is aimed squarely at Harvard—seeking to inflict maximum economic consequences for its moral stance—the real question becomes, how much does Harvard value its policy of nondiscrimination? When the Department of Defense, brandishing the Solomon Amendment, threatened to withhold federal grants unless Harvard Law School allowed military recruiters on campus, the University capitulated and gave the recruiters an exemption from the non-discrimination clause. It should not do so again. If the Senate approves the bill and President Bush signs it into law, Harvard must not hesitate to take a moral, if economically painful stance. By rejecting government money, Harvard makes a bold assertion to stand by its principles, and its actions speak far louder than words.

It is important to recognize that Harvard’s stance on the issue stems from a desire to improve the military, not to deny its worth; it is a matter of holding all student groups accountable to the same principled standards. University President Lawrence H. Summers has rightly stressed the need for the University to support America’s public servants. We too, who firmly believe the University should stand by its nondiscrimination policy, have no desire to disparage the brave efforts made by U.S. soldiers worldwide. We praise the work of the ROTC Association, the nondiscriminatory and College-approved student group, which educates and trains students in the value of public service. And, moreover, we support those Harvard students who make the regular trip to MIT to participate in ROTC there; their determination and objectives are admirable.

But let there be no mistake: The entity responsible for making those students’ lives more difficult is not Harvard but the federal government itself. Congress has repeatedly refused to take the opportunity to repeal its disgraceful “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which has been in effect ever since Congress took the unusual step of dictating military policy to the Pentagon at the start of President Clinton’s term. Currently, should a ROTC cadet’s homosexual identity be revealed, he or she stands to lose a ROTC scholarship sometimes worth over $100,000. If the federal government were to rescind its policy, which is offensive and wrong, it would remove an unfortunate stain from ROTC’s image, and the group would very quickly gain official access to campus once again.

It’s disappointing that Harvard and the federal government have come to this impasse, but it is even more shameful that Congress is attempting to blackmail the University. Harvard should stay the course with its policy on ROTC and attempt through all the means at its disposal to reverse the federal government’s mistaken course. If it does not, Harvard will end up facing an undesirable, if apparent, choice of surrendering a vast wealth of federal funds or its principles.