On Tuesday, Jan. 26, President Barack H. Obama stood before the nation and appealed to Harvard in his State of the Union address. “Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love,” he said, referencing the successful repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the policy excluding openly gay individuals from military service. “With that change, I call on all our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.”
On Nov. 17, Harvard President Drew G. Faust made the case for ROTC’s return at the Institute of Politics, conditioned upon the repeal of DADT: “I want to be the president of Harvard who sees the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ because I want to be able to take the steps to ensure that any and every Harvard student is able to make the honorable and admirable choice to commit him or herself to the nation’s defense.” We agree with Presidents Obama and Faust, and urge the University to follow through on Faust’s pledge.
Just as DADT represented an outdated prejudice directed toward gay American citizens, the absence of ROTC now stands as a relic of an outdated bias against the American armed forces. When ROTC was expelled from Harvard in 1969, military enlistment was mandatory, as was ROTC participation on countless U.S. campuses. Today, absent its prior objectionable compulsory and discriminatory policies, ROTC deserves recognition as a legitimate pre-professional track at Harvard. The university supports pre-law, pre-med and pre-business activities on the part of its students; it should support pre-military study as well. Further, the same access to Harvard’s student body that is granted to recruiters for countless career paths should be given to the U.S. military.
We welcome the perspective of the military to Harvard’s marketplace of ideas, and believe that there can be no better context for an ROTC education than within Harvard’s curriculum and values. It is here that the complexities of moral philosophy, modern politics, and military instruction can be put into dialogue in the grand humanistic tradition of America’s greatest university. Students and teachers of all disciplines and political persuasions challenge and edify each other, and we are confident that the fruits of their considered conversations will redound to the benefit of our nation.
Of course, the extent of ROTC’s return to Harvard—beyond its recognition as an official campus organization—should be determined in consultation with the Pentagon and reflect the country’s needs. Admiral Michael G. “Mike” Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that “it is incredibly important to have ROTC units at institutions like this…and I certainly would do all in my power to make that happen.” We hope that Harvard will partner with our nation’s leaders in this regard.
We remind those who would oppose this move that President Faust and other Harvard administrators have repeatedly predicated the return of ROTC upon the repeal of DADT. Thus, should the university backtrack on its public commitment, its political credibility will be greatly impaired, as will Harvard’s ability to influence future legislation with similar pronouncements. On the other hand, by holding up its end of the bargain and bringing ROTC back to campus, the University lends strength and consequence to the repeal of DADT against those politicians who would reinstate it.
While we remain concerned about the continued exclusion of transgendered and intersex individuals from military service, we do not feel that this is sufficient justification for singling out the military for campus opprobrium. Furthermore, as such objections to ROTC only emerged in the public discourse after the repeal of DADT, to base rejection of ROTC on them now would be disingenuous and erode the credibility of Harvard as a good faith actor in this debate.
In making this argument for the return of ROTC to Harvard’s campus, we are cognizant of those undergraduates who currently participate in the program at MIT at great personal sacrifice. We commend them for following in the footsteps of prior Harvard servicemen, an illustrious group with the most Medal of Honor awardees of any institution of higher education outside the American service academies.
Pointing to this laudable legacy of service in Harvard’s past, President Faust made the case for ROTC’s return, telling a distinguished audience at the IOP, “It is my personal belief that Harvard has a responsibility to this nation and its citizens, a responsibility it has embraced since the earliest days of the Republic.” We concur. It is time for Harvard to set an example for America’s universities once more and renew this noble tradition.