Citing support from both major presidential candidates, a conservative alumni organization called for the return of the Reserve Officer Training Corps to Harvard and four other universities in letters to the schools’ governing boards last week.
The letter, sent by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, quoted Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama endorsing ROTC training on college campuses.
“The notion that young people—here at Columbia or anywhere in any university—aren’t offered the choice, the option of participating in military service, I think is a mistake,” Obama said at the ServiceNation presidential forum hosted by Columbia earlier this month.
The letter appears unlikely to change Harvard’s policy toward ROTC, which was banned from campus in 1969 amid anti-military sentiment during the Vietnam War. ROTC has since been blocked from returning due to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which bars openly gay men and women from military service.
Harvard students who participate in ROTC do so through MIT but do not receive any academic credit at Harvard.
“There aren’t any current plans to reconsider the current arrangement,” said University spokesman John D. Longbrake.
ACTA President Anne D. Neal ’77 said she hoped members of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s chief governing board, would reconsider their stance in light of the candidates’ comments.
“It’s noteworthy that both major candidates feel that having ROTC on campus is a matter of student choice and equity,” she said. “Institutions should take up this issue.”
But Paul E. Mawn ’63, the chairman of Advocates for Harvard ROTC and a retired Navy captain, said in an interview yesterday that ACTA “may not understand what the realistic target is” and that the goal should be official recognition by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, not the opening of a ROTC branch at Harvard.
“The reality is that there are so few students at ROTC anyway, so tomorrow if Harvard begged and pleaded the Pentagon to bring it back on campus, they wouldn’t,” Mawn said. “What has evolved around the country is core sites like MIT that service several different schools. MIT has the critical mass and good facilities and classrooms for the courses and drilling and other activities. There is no critical mass at Harvard.”
Mawn added that he would rather see the Faculty officially recognize ROTC by sending the money it receives from ROTC scholarships—an amount that totals in the hundreds of thousands of dollars—to MIT to pay for overhead and other costs. He noted that Harvard used to make the payments but cut them off in the early 1990s. Since then, a group of alumni have been giving money to MIT to cover the administrative costs.
Harvard students interviewed yesterday were split on the issue of whether ROTC should be allowed to return to campus.
“I can understand why Harvard would feel that way,” said Aaron R. Scherer ’11, an ROTC cadet. “But it just makes it really inconvenient for the students who have to do ROTC.”
Despite Obama’s stance, Harvard College Democrats President Jarret A. Zafran ’09 said he would continue to support keeping ROTC off-campus unless the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy—which bars openly-gay soldiers from serving openly—is revoked.
“It has no place on Harvard’s campus,” Zafran said. “‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is a discriminatory policy. I don’t think that [Obama] would disagree with our anti-discrimination policy.”
Harvard Republican Club President Colin J. Motley ’10 agreed that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is discriminatory but said Harvard’s rules unjustly punish the military for a policy enacted by the U.S. Congress and should be changed.
“I think it shows how far out of the mainstream Harvard is on this issue when it has strong support from members of both parties,” Motley said.
The other schools that were sent the ACTA letter are Yale, Stanford, Brown, and Columbia, according to Neal.
Neal said that none of the schools have responded yet, but the presidential candidates’ comments at the forum have already sparked debate on the issue at Columbia, according to The Columbia Spectator.
—Paras D. Bhayani contributed to the reporting of this story. —Staff writer Clifford M. Marks can be reached at email@example.com. —Staff writer Nathan C. Strauss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.