Harvard’s Moral Failure

Oh, how times have changed. Forty years ago this month, in 1969, the Reserve Officers Training Program (ROTC) was booted off campus due to student protests over the Vietnam War—which included a violent takeover of University Hall and arson of a campus ROTC building. While we’ve moved away from the era of radical anti-American student activism (for the most part), the policy results achieved by that activism still stand at Harvard. ROTC is now unwelcome here due to the Clinton administration’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which forbids openly gay individuals from serving in the military. Harvard’s continued exclusion of ROTC from campus is not only embarrassingly out of touch; but it is also an egregious display of moral cowardice.

Ostensibly, ROTC’s absence from campus life can be explained because the university deems the military a discriminatory organization. Harvard’s student handbook argues that the federal government’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy “is inconsistent with Harvard’s values as stated in its policy on discrimination.” Thus, “the University does not provide any financial or other direct support for the ROTC program at MIT.”

But, if Harvard’s administrators truly wish to dissociate the university from any organizations they deem discriminatory, intellectual consistency demands that the university dissociate itself from the federal government, not the military. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was signed into law in 1993 by then-President Clinton, not the armed services; the military has no influence over whether the law is repealed.

Unfortunately, Harvard insists upon punishing 18- and 19-year-old cadets and midshipmen for a law signed into place before they were in kindergarten. But, while Harvard claims the moral high ground by keeping ROTC off campus, it has no ethical objections to associating itself with the federal government, which put the policy in place. In 2005, Harvard accepted federal funding equal to about 15 percent of the university’s operating budget.

For Harvard to truly be consistent in its opposition to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, it would have to reject all federal grants and funding. However, the university is inconsistent in enforcing its view on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, penalizing the brave men and women who serve their country in ROTC to make a political point. Harvard is willing to make sacrifices to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—as long as the sacrifices affect only ROTC students and not the university’s budget.

An extremely negative consequence of the way ROTC has been treated by Harvard and other elite institutions is the dearth of ROTC students at these schools. The ROTC program at Harvard used to boast over 1000 participants; now there are only 29. These numbers are disturbing. Our society should encourage students from the institutions at the pinnacle of higher education to take part in sharing in the sacrifice of serving.

However, instead of encouraging Harvard students to join the military, the university has done the exact opposite. In fact, then-Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan wrote in 2005 that she felt that the military’s access to Harvard’s Office of Career Services was unacceptable. “I regret making this exception to our antidiscrimination policy,” she said when the Law School was forced to give military recruiters the same access that investment banks and consulting firms have to OCS or lose federal funding.

Rather than discouraging Harvard students from military service because of a law they have no control over, Harvard should be working to foster a return to the spirit of service that once defined its graduates. If the university truly believes Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is “deeply wrong,” then it is free to lobby Congress and the president. It is free to encourage its professors to speak out. It is even free to reject all federal funding in the name of a higher principle.

But, instead, Harvard has chosen to exclude ROTC from campus. It has chosen not to fund overhead expenses of Harvard students participating in ROTC at MIT. It has chosen not to officially recognize the program. It has included only a section warning students against joining ROTC in its handbook, but nothing commending the service of those in the program. It has disgraced the very students who have shunned lucrative private-sector jobs in the name of service to their country and caused their numbers to dwindle on campus. I am personally aware of students who were accepted to Harvard and chose not to matriculate here because they intended to join ROTC and felt unwelcome by Harvard.

Driving students away through making the university an unwelcome place toward ROTC cadets and midshipmen is truly despicable and does nothing to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the university’s stated aim. When asked if ROTC should be invited back onto campuses it’s been excluded from in the past, President Obama answered, “Yes. I think we’ve made a mistake on that.” Harvard should take a cue from one of its most beloved graduates and change its ROTC policy.


Caleb L. Weatherl ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Currier House. He is president emeritus of the Harvard Republican Club.