“Don’t Ask” about ROTC?

On April 1, the Columbia Senate, a legislative body composed of student, faculty, and administration, voted 51-17 to begin negotiations with the military about bringing ROTC back to campus. Yale College recently created a faculty committee to investigate the program’s return to campus, which will “seek student input.” Stanford University’s Ad Hoc Committee on ROTC has also fostered discussion on Stanford’s campus, and a non-binding question on ROTC’s presence at Stanford appeared on the spring election ballot last month.

In contrast, at Harvard, President Drew Faust simply announced on March 3 that she would welcome Naval ROTC back onto campus. She not only failed to adequately acknowledge that students, staff, and faculty might oppose its return but also provided no forum for discussion about the extent of ROTC recognition and has publically explained very little about the decision.

The issue of ROTC on campus requires an informed and transparent decision-making process. Despite historical precedent, Harvard’s 2011 decision to “reinstate” ROTC was neither of these.

In the past, our university has made decisions about ROTC only after seriously considering student and faculty opinion. Responding to student concerns about Harvard’s engagement with the military during the Vietnam War, a faculty panel met to debate removing course credit and space allocation for ROTC. Another panel met in the 1990s to address ROTC in the context of anti-gay discrimination.

However, in 2011, the faculty took no vote, and students had no forums for discussion. Now, more than a month after President Faust announced ROTC’s return, the Harvard community still knows little about the process of negotiations or the terms of the deal.

The Harvard administration must not be the sole voice dictating Harvard’s policy toward ROTC. Not only does President Faust fail to represent the diversity of opinion in the student body, but as the president of a university that stands to gain public approval from recognizing ROTC, she may have external motivation for facilitating ROTC’s return.

Many students remain concerned about ROTC’s continued violation of Harvard’s anti-discrimination policy. As Samuel Bakkilla ’12 and Jia Hui Lee ’12 wrote in the Crimson, the military forbids transgender individuals from serving openly, and Harvard’s anti-discrimination policy promises to protect members of our community from discrimination based on “gender identity.”

Three days before the public announcement of NROTC’s return, a group of students from the Harvard Trans Task Force met with Faust’s staff and Dean Evelynn Hammonds to discuss ROTC’s violation of the anti-discrimination policy. One of us was present at the meeting, and he noted that the administration’s representatives were apparently not aware of the military’s policy against transgender individuals. The representatives told the students, who were not informed the program would be re-recognized later that week, to direct their concerns to a Naval official instead of the Harvard administration.

While President Faust signed an agreement officially welcoming NROTC back to campus, we participated in an impromptu protest outside. As we packed up to leave, President Faust came out to speak to the protestors. She acknowledged that she “heard us” and recognized our concerns, but still offered no way for us to officially present our objections to the Harvard community.

Some might object to a student referendum on ROTC on the grounds that the non-discrimination policy is not subject to debate. We agree; however, as many in the Harvard community remain ignorant about the military’s discrimination and the administration fails to uphold its own policy, open discussion is necessary to educate the community and protect the non-discrimination policy.

Discussion of ROTC’s violation of the anti-discrimination policy has provided the most vocalized objection to its presence on campus; however, other concerns exist. Students may feel uncomfortable with Harvard University’s decision to assume all costs involved in NROTC and pay an administrator for the program. Students, faculty, staff, and donors who object to the U.S. military’s history of sexual assault, abuse of power, or necessary and institutional complicity in unjust conflicts may not want their tuition money supporting such a system. International students, who do not pay taxes to the US government and may come from countries not allied with the United States, may also hold objections. These concerns need a forum for discussion.

But President Faust has already signed a document “bringing back” NROTC. She has not only made a conclusive step in the recognition of ROTC on Ivy League campuses but also set an impressive precedent for other universities like Columbia and Stanford. What can be done now?

President Faust can, and should, ask students and faculty members for their input, now and in the future. Crucially, she must conduct a more thorough investigation of ROTC’s violation of the anti-discrimination policy and reconsider recognition on the basis of student opinion and discrimination.

Furthermore, as we remain skeptical of the administration’s objectivity on the decision to reinstate ROTC, we demand a public review or disclosure of the terms of Harvard’s deal with Naval ROTC. This information will not only inform students on Harvard’s campus but also provide grounds for discussion on other campuses.

While President Faust may have wished to set a precedent by making Harvard the first Ivy League school to reinstate a ROTC branch after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, fast and uniformed action must never outweigh the importance of community opinion and implications on civil and human rights. Harvard’s nontransparent and unprecedented decision is unacceptable and demands immediate reconsideration.

CORRECTION: May 8, 2011

An earlier version of this article in both the print and online editions misspelled the name of the Dean of Harvard College. She is Evelynn Hammonds, not Evelyn Hammonds.

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