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Turning Soft on ROTC

By Brian R. Hecht

SOMETHING STRANGE has been going on in the decision-making circles of the Harvard administration lately. Don't get me wrong--on most counts, Harvard's new administrators are acting exactly like Harvard's old administrators. They fall back on the same old tired arguments ("Legacy admissions really are fair") and resort to the same old priorities ("Research first, then teaching").

But there's one word that drives Harvard administrators up the wall. A word that causes deans to abandon precedents that they might otherwise have respected. A word that forces administrators to act like democratic populists, rather than the admittedly benevolent dictators that they are. A word that has decision-makers, in short, running scared.

The word, of course, is ROTC. And as the dreaded acronym has been coming up more and more often in University Hall, the responses of administrators have been becoming, well, curioser and curioser.

THE ISSUE of whether Harvard should cintinue to accept scholarship from the Reserve Officers' Training Corps is a complex one. The debate centers around the military's policy of barring gays and lesbians from service--a practice which some say conflicts with Harvard's own policy of non-discrimination. Anti-ROTC forces question whether Harvard would accept scholarships from, say, the Ku Klux Klan, which also discriminates. Pro-ROTC forces say that if scholarships are cut, ROTC students will themselves become victims of economic discrimination.

Top administrators--particularly President Neil L. Rudenstine and Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles--are clearly caught in a tough call between two injustices. And they are playing it safe by playing to the messes. In recent days, both have called for a massive public discussion of the ROTC issue Knowles is already bracing for a semester-long Faculty Council debate on the issue.

So, you may ask, what's wrong with democracy anyway? Isn't this what students are always asking for--a little debate? Of course, public discourse can only be beneficial for the community as a whole. But in this case, the call for discussion seems to be a thin veil--part of a larger unwillingness to follow through on an obligation that the Faculty Council has already stated: the obligation to cut all ties to ROTC unless the military ends its discriminatory practices.

UNTIL VERY RECENTLY, major events in the history of Harvard ROTC were inevitably linked to student protests. In 1969, massive demonstrations forced the Harvard Faculty to take actions leading to ROTC's withdrawal from campus. Nowadays, students wishing to receive military training must travel to MIT for ROTC instruction. In 1989 (incidentally, 20 years to the week after the '69 protests), the Undergraduate Council voted to ask the Faculty to bring ROTC back to campus. One week later, that resolution was repealed, the result of, you guessed it, massive student protests.

But in the spring of 1990, the Faculty Council, the executive committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, took a bold stand on ROTC, sans student protest. They issued an ultimatum: If the military did not end its discriminatory practices within two years, Harvard would cut all ties to ROTC. Then-president Derek C. Bok and thendean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney expressing the same sentiment.

The Faculty Council statement minced no words: "The Faculty Council deplores the existing Department of Defense policies not to accept gay or lesbian students into ROTC programs and to require acknowledged homosexuals to disenroll and return scholarship funds that they have received," the statement read. "These policies are directly opposed to Harvard's own firm commitment to non-discrmimination."

Well, the two years are almost up. Is the Faculty bearing down on the military, reminding them of that deadline? Is the administration publicly affirming its commitment to non-discrimination in the military? Not quite.

This week, Knowles told The Crimson that the Faculty Council will soon begin what will effectively be a new discussion of ROTC. The 1989 ultimatum, he seemed to say, wasn't all that important, and certainly wasn't binding. In a veritable wafflefest, Knowles said, "what is certain is that we shall have a very full discussion of the philosophical and the practical issues, and I hope we shall arrive at a considered consensus." Earlier, Rudenstine, who was himself a ROTC cadet, said that he hadn't made up his mind on the issue.

Those statements are a far cry from the committed rhetoric of the Faculty Council of but a year and a half ago. The administration now seems to be saying: "wait a second, let's see what everyone thinks about this." Suddenly, Harvard has dug deep down in its soul and discovered a commitment to public input.

Well, isn't that convenient.

GRANTED,the Faculty Council speaks for no one but the Faculty Council, and neither the full Faculty nor the University is technically compelled to comply with its resolutions. Undoubtedly, the new Rudenstine/Knowles administration wants to make its own decisions on important issues. But the Faculty and administration seldom break with the faculty Council (almost never on issues as important as this). It is obvious that the council's ultimatum--as well as Bok and Spence's letter--spoke, in some sense, for Harvard's leadership.

One does not need to agree with the council's stance on ROTC to understand that Rudenstine and Knowles should abide by the Faculty Council's ultimatum. It is useful here to consider the Congressional debate before the Gulf War. President Bush--rightly or wrongly--issued an ultimatum to Saddam, granting Congress only the last-minute right of refusal. Congress's decision was limited by the fact that the ultimatum had already been made, and that backing down would involve serious loss of face.

This spring, the Faculty, too, has the right to back down on the council's ROTC ultimatum. But they must not--for reasons far greater than loss of face. The ROTC ultimatum was not issued by a single executive without representative consent. It was issued by a coalition of dean, president and elected representatives of the Faculty. The council debated and thought hard before passing it. As such, the threat has far more legitimacy than the commitment of troops by a commander-in-chief.

It is well and good that Rudenstine and Knowles are interested in faculty and student input on ROTC. But Harvard decided and effectively committed to a position long ago. Both proponents and advocates of ROTC should recognize the importance of such a position, and respect the council's decision.

To back down after such a strongly worded ultimatum would send a disastrous message to the military: that Harvard has had a drastic change of heart and doesn't really mind now what it minded two years ago. If Rudenstine and Knowles feel strongly enough in defense of ROTC, they should go ahead and send that message. But to pretend that the issue is simply up for grabs is downright irresponsible. Sure, let's talk. But most importantly, let's remember what's already been said.

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