In the Service of the Nation

The Supreme Court’s anticipated ruling on the Solomon Amendment will likely end one era of a troubled relationship between Harvard and the military. By all accounts, the Supreme Court is ready to uphold the controversial law, permitting the Pentagon to suspend all federal funding to universities that deny “equal access” to military recruiters. Although Harvard has periodically suspended and reinstated recruiters’ access in the past, based on the law’s status in the appeals system, the Supreme Court’s expected ruling will add a note of finality to the oft-tumultuous relationship.

Harvard’s long-standing opposition to military recruitment dates back to the Vietnam War. In 1969, student and faculty war protests culminated in the removal of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) from campus. Since then, the hostility between Harvard and the military has survived, though the reasons have changed. In 1995, citing the military’s ban on homosexual participation—particularly the nebulous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy—Harvard hardened its line by ending all official funding for the ROTC. One year later, Congress passed into law the Solomon Amendment.

Both of these latter acts—the passage of the Solomon Amendment and the end to ROTC funding—are characteristic of an embittered and misunderstood relationship between the military and universities like Harvard. For its part, Harvard’s opposition to the military’s policy towards homosexuals should not amount to a total exile of all recruiters and ROTC cadets; by denying access to its exceptional pool of lawyers, doctors, scientists, and soldiers, the University discredits the national importance of the military and refuses it important resources. This is not to say that Harvard should back down on its ideals, or excuse the military’s active discrimination towards homosexuals. But the University can recognize the military’s high purpose while simultaneously condemning its faults; endorsement and acknowledgement are very different things. Symbolically, Harvard’s refusal to allow recruiters a place on campus is more than protest towards a particular policy. It is a thirty-six year long condemnation the military’s purpose, an invocation of the bitter memory of Vietnam.

In similar fashion, the Solomon Amendment is a heavy-handed reaction to a genuine disagreement of institutional values. But its most dangerous repercussion is its misconstrual of the role universities play in society. By conditioning federal funding on compliance with military recruitment, the Pentagon makes federal funding seem like a reward. This perpetrates the image of federal grants as a one-sided benefit—that Harvard receives a large sum of taxpayer money essentially for free. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Harvard indeed receives from the government—to the tune of over $400 million a year—but most of those funds go to the Medical School. This money is then used to fund research into areas like Alzheimer’s disease, cancer genetics, and counter-bioterrorism: work that is socially invaluable, and likely achievable no where else. By jeopardizing federal investment into medical and technological progress, the Pentagon gambles not merely with Harvard’s institutional good, but society’s welfare as well.

If upheld, the Solomon Amendment will mean an end to the most overt gestures of animosity between Harvard and the military. It will not mean that the animosity itself—which has been so damaging to the national interest—will disappear. Reconciliation will be no easy task, but we should try. Harvard can use military recruiters’ presence on campus to spark two important discussions: first, on the military’s history and role; second, on the acceptance of homosexuals in the armed services. Both of these discussions should occur with mutual respect (and perhaps Congress-writing campaigns). In return, the military should make it a high priority to listen to and take students from Harvard, particularly those with views on homosexuality different from the Pentagon’s own. Social change happens slowly, but the brass should brace itself for, and be open to, an end to all discrimination in the armed services.

As individual institutions, both Harvard and the military have had venerable traditions of acting in the nation’s service. But their best moments have been when they stood together: Memorial Church is our monument to those students that served and died in World War I. The memory of these brave soldiers is poorly served by the bitterness between the two institutions today. Harvard should not challenge the military’s existence—even symbolically—by refusing it access to soldiers. The military should not risk Harvard’s scientific contributions by toying with its funds. If the Solomon Amendment is indeed upheld, neither institution should view it as a victory or a loss. Both should take the opportunity to rebuild a shattered relationship, for the good the nation that they love.

Alexander N. Li ’08 is a philosophy concentrator in Leverett House.