Military Buys Discrimination

Many researchers at Harvard Medical School and in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences depend on government grants to help develop new technologies, fight diseases and advance our understanding of the world. But this summer the military threatened to cut off that funding—all $328 million—because Harvard Law School (HLS) took a stand against discrimination.

Until last month, HLS had prevented military recruiters from officially recruiting law students on campus due to the military’s discriminatory ban on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people serving openly in the U.S. military. When faced with the choice of either opening HLS to military recruiters—and abrogating the University’s nondiscrimination policy—or losing 16 percent of the University’s annual operating budget, HLS reluctantly chose money over principle.

The military’s actions toward Harvard make a mockery of federal research funding. Federal grants from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health are meant to support research. These funds should not to be leveraged to support a discriminatory policy. The military has put a price on rights, and bought the University’s complicity in discrimination.

Advocates of the military and all its actions are quick to play the patriotism card and invoke the tragedies of last Sept. 11. But true patriotism is not about flag-waving and blind support of the military. Patriotism means standing for the principles this country is supposed to stand for—equal opportunities, civil liberties and freedom to dissent from the ruling government.

The military is a flawed institution. Defending our country is an important priority, but some of the rules and regulations the military follows in going about this mission are convoluted and discriminatory, and cause real harm. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which has been overzealously enforced by a homophobic military culture, is one of these practices that must be changed. Last year, 1,250 American service members were discharged from the military for homosexuality. People have been discharged simply for going to a gay community website. The normality of harassment of service members is disturbing, and its severity is frightening. In 1999, a gay soldier at Fort Campbell, Kentucky was beaten to death by another soldier who had been harassing him for weeks. With the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in effect, service members facing harassment are often reluctant to report it, being understandably concerned that if they come forward, they themselves may face further harassment or discharge. The military’s policy on homosexuality is discriminatory and must be changed to allow the diversity of America to appear in the forces that defend it.


HLS’s previous policy on military recruitment was not an outright ban, but a compromise in which both sides were able to meet their objectives. The military was allowed some access to the valuable resource of Harvard law students by going through the Harvard Law School Veteran’s Association. The University stood by its principles by not officially allowing on-campus recruiters for the military, whose “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is in direct violation of Harvard’s nondiscrimination policy. This compromise was carefully crafted to be a fair middle ground, and it would have remained so had the military not decided this summer to break this agreement.

Circumventing an open discussion of HLS policy with the students whom it will directly affect, the Air Force waited until the very end of May—after law students had already left for the summer—to send the letter threatening to cut Harvard’s funding. That letter listed a deadline for HLS’s decision as July—long before the students return in the fall. This clever timing allowed the Air Force to bully HLS while no one was around to defend the compromise that was in place, making these dealings particularly underhanded.

Moreover, recruiting on the HLS campus will likely make no difference in the number of Harvard students who sign up for the military. Instead, the main effect of the change is in revealing the military’s true priorities of squelching any opposition to its blatant and unjustifiable discrimination. And don’t think the Air Force is in such desperate need of personnel that it must recruit here. All branches of the service are projected to meet their recruiting goals this year, and there is no desperate shortage of military personnel.

Harvard has abdicated its leadership among universities who oppose on-campus military recruiting, and that may prove to send a far-reaching signal. Higher education specialist Sheldon Steinbach has predicted that allowing military recruiters at Harvard, which has both a world-class reputation and a history of standing up to the military, could lead many other law schools to follow. This past year, any opposition to military actions has been highly unpopular. Getting Harvard to cave may be the win the military needs to pursue even further intervention on campuses around the country.

Stephanie M. Skier ’05, a Crimson editor, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. She is co-chair of the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters Alliance.