Taking The Long Way

After years of discord, will Harvard and the military finally make peace?

A handful of students will gather today in leafy Tercentenary Theatre for a ceremony filled with all the pomp and circumstance of Commencement. As newly-commissioned officers in the U.S. armed forces, the students are part of a tradition of service that dates back decades and that once involved hundreds of students. Today’s ceremony will also highlight a relatively new tradition: an address by the university president, the seventh in eight years.

The scene will stand in stark contrast to one of my first experiences as a Crimson reporter. In December 2005, I sat in Harvard Law School’s Harkness Commons as a group of law students listened to an audio stream of oral arguments before the Supreme Court. That case was about whether universities could bar the military from their campuses and still receive federal money. Needless to say, everyone at Harvard thought the answer was yes. When, a couple months later, the court delivered its own answer (an emphatic no), I wrote a second raft of stories in which students and faculty conveyed their dismay with the court’s ruling.

What is interesting is that both of these events accurately reflect the Harvard’s attitude toward the military: the University president honors those who serve, but other segments of the community limit the recognition they receive for doing so. This complicated balancing act is the result of a shift in American attitudes toward the military. When Harvard banned on-campus recruiting in 1969, anti-military sentiment ran deep in leftist circles. Today, though, even the ardent liberals of Harvard’s faculty are quick to praise the valor of service, saying that the decision not to recognize ROTC is reflective only of their commitment to civil rights. As a result, Harvard’s contemporary opposition to the military is exceedingly narrow: specifically, that the military’s prohibition on openly gay-servicemembers violates the University’s non-discrimination policy. And given the changes in the cultural and legislative landscapes in just the past few years, the basis for Harvard’s clash with the military might soon be gone.

Sometime in the recent past—and perhaps as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks—prevailing non-faculty sentiment at Harvard seems to have shifted strongly in favor of the military.

University Presidents Lawrence H. Summers and Drew G. Faust have both spoken admiringly of military service: Summers took enormous flack early in his tenure for saying that the military should have a larger role on campus, and Faust, a self-described military historian, has said that she has “enormous respect” for those who participate in ROTC.

Similarly, student opinion seems considerably more favorable of the military than it once was. Where undergraduates once stormed University Hall to have ROTC thrown off campus, a recent poll conducted by ROTC advocates found that three-fifths of students support officially recognizing the program. And even those who remain opposed to the military are far more moderate in their approach than their counterparts of a generation past. During one of its principal demonstrations against the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the Law School’s gay-rights organization confined itself to placing pink soldiers on students’ desks and asking students and faculty to write letters to Congress. When I asked one of the organizers if his group planned to confront military recruiters when they arrived on campus—something the Supreme Court explicitly authorized—he said that it was not appropriate to harass recruiters who had no role in formulating the discriminatory policy.

More important than any change in attitudes at Harvard, however, is the fact that the federal government might soon allow gay individuals to serve in the military openly, a movement that has gathered strength after reports that specialists in high-demand languages like Arabic and Farsi have been discharged for being gay. President Obama has said that he will push Congress to repeal the law, noting that the British armed forces have integrated their ranks without incident. Such a change in policy would strip Harvard of its basis for opposing the military’s presence on campus. Since most liberal politicians—including Obama—have criticized Harvard’s current position, continuing to reject the military after “don’t ask, don’t tell” is repealed would be a public relations disaster, not to mention extremely hypocritical.

Of course, any official recognition of ROTC will actually mean little to Harvard. As it currently stands, ROTC officials do not want to open an office at Harvard, largely because the number of prospective cadets is small. Recognition would be largely symbolic: dropping the official statement opposing ROTC, noting ROTC participation on transcripts, and releasing funds to cover administrative costs at MIT.

But symbols matter, just as Summers and Faust have shown by speaking at the ROTC commissioning ceremonies. If Congress repeals “don’t ask, don’t tell” and Harvard fully recognizes ROTC, the military and academia might finally heal a divide that is now four decades old.

—Paras D. Bhayani ’09, The Crimson’s managing editor in 2008 and an economics concentrator in Pforzheimer House, can be reached at pbhayani@post.harvard.edu.