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This week brought an end to Harvard's five-year ROTC debate, at least officially. Meeting yesterday, the Harvard Corporation approved a new relationship between the University and the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), that will effectively end Harvard's financial ties to the program. While it may not satisfy partisans on either side, the new policy is a sensible, if somewhat belated, compromise.
The decision brings an end to a protracted and sometimes acrimonious debate that began in 1990 when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences called on the administration to sever ties with the ROTC program because it discriminated against homosexuals.
Five years later, after a committee report, administrative delays and several more Faculty resolutions calling for an end to financial ties, Rudenstine proposed the creation of a separate fund to allow Harvard students to participate in ROTC, while ending the University's direct financial support of the program. At the time, we endorsed Rudenstine's plan as a sensible balance between conflicting interests.
On the one side were many students and the Faculty's reasonable distaste for an essentially bigoted government policy. The military's fear of "integrating" homosexuals into the army recalls past concerns about racial integration. In place of fairness, the military offers a hypocritical "don't ask, don't tell" policy that theoretically allows homosexuals to serve, so long as they keep their sexuality to them selves and stay celibate.
At the same time in the pursuit of fairness, the administration must consider the benefits that the ROTC program provides to students. ROTC provides scholarships above and beyond Harvard's financial aid office, and for many participants, it is a prerequisite for a future military career. If Harvard were to prevent students from participating in the program, it would lose many of the two dozen ROTC students who enroll each year.
Therefore, it would seem sensible to permit ROTC as a valuable program but to forswear funding it as part of a discriminatory institution.
At the same time that we endorsed Rudenstine's plan last November, we questioned the autonomy of the proposed ROTC fund. According to the President, Harvard would administer unsolicited donations from alumni in order to pay the annual subvention to enable students' participation. While ROTC would be nominally separate from Harvard's regular fundraising activities, we questioned whether it would be so in practice.
Consequently, we asked the administration to further distance itself from ROTC funding by appointing an independent administrator. And so we are pleased that Acting President Albert Carnesale has since amended Rudenstine's proposal, creating an independent charitable trust to continue ROTC funding. According to Carnesale, appointed alumni, and not the Harvard administration, will be responsible for raising and tending the annual subvention that allows Harvard students to enroll in MIT's ROTC program.
Carnesale further cleared up Rudenstine's proposal by permitting the ROTC commissioning ceremony to continue at Commencement. By allowing students to receive their commissions during commencement, the University recognizes the importance of ROTC to participants' college experience. It does not amount to an endorsement of the program's discrimination.
But Harvard must be careful to preserve its separation from the program elsewhere. The spirit of the new policy is that ROTC is essentially a private extracurricular activity, neither condoned nor prohibited by the University.
While ROTC opponents may have wanted Harvard to go further, to do so would have detracted from campus diversity and discouraged future students interested in military careers from coming to Harvard. After five protracted years of discussion, Harvard has not ended this nationwide debate, but it has acted wisely and fairly to all parties involved.
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