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Reasoning with Solomon

By Cormac A. Early

The recent Supreme Court hearings on the Solomon Amendment have thrown the issue of military recruitment back into the limelight at Harvard. With the Court likely to reject the arguments of the Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights (FAIR), Harvard will again be forced to choose between $400 million of federal money and the unpleasantness of having discriminatory recruiters on campus.

When Dean of the Law School Elena Kagan faced exactly this choice in September, student groups such as Lambda, the Law School’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students association, denounced what they saw as the bigoted policies of the Pentagon, but accepted that too much funding was at stake for Harvard to refuse to comply.

Lambda’s stance involved a perfectly reasonable cost-benefit analysis, based on a recognition of Harvard’s immense contribution to the public good. A $400 million funding-cut would have jeopardized much of the University’s cutting-edge research in science and medicine, a price that not even Lambda feels is worth paying.

But even without Congress’s somewhat bizarre and heavy-handed creation of an artificial penalty for turning away recruiters, the University’s ambivalence towards the military carries a number of more subtle costs.

Harvard’s objection to recruiters on campus extends far beyond distaste at the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy. Concern for the rights of gay students is only the latest incarnation of a deep seated antipathy towards the military, dating from the Vietnam War period. To many at Harvard, the presence of the military on campus under any circumstances is objectionable, regardless of the Pentagon’s policy towards gays.

To a majority of Americans, especially in the post 9/11 atmosphere, this stance is an unpatriotic betrayal of Harvard’s civic duty. As government lawyers argued before the Supreme Court, the country has the right to expect that the military will have access to the nation’s best and brightest young people. To many, even moderates who dislike the DADT policy, it seems that gay rights are being over-prioritized at the expense of the national interest.

It is this sentiment that makes the Solomon Amendment an extremely effective political tool for social conservatives. By forcing universities to publicly oppose military presence on their campuses, the amendment robs the universities of their credibility on defense issues in the eyes of the public.

The universities, effectively cornered in stereotypes of east coast academic liberalism, are prevented from fully contributing to the important debate over the DADT policy. Harvard might be respected, but no one wants to listen to “the Kremlin on the Charles.” This marginalizes rational and intelligent opposition to DADT, and acts only in the interests of those who wish to preserve the status quo.

If gay rights are the only concern keeping the military off-campus, it makes more tactical sense to allow the military to recruit, with disclaimers dissociating the school from anti-gay discrimination, as the justices suggested during oral arguments.

This fosters the impression that the University, whilst respectfully disagreeing with aspects of the military’s policy, accepts that the national interest overrides these concerns. By making it clear that its objection is to a discriminatory policy rather than to the military as a whole, the University’s objections are more likely to be taken seriously as the legitimate objections of a rational, moderate, and patriotic institution, rather than the irrelevant obstructionism of radical leftists.

Of course, the price of such pragmatism is borne by a minority of the student body. Although it is unfortunate to send the message that the administration condones discrimination of this nature, the practical impact on the everyday life of the campus is relatively small. Law schools will retain, and undoubtedly exercise, the right to append a disclaimer to any emails or posters advertising recruiting events highlighting their disagreement with DADT. At the events themselves, military recruiters remain confined to a small, easily avoidable space.

Ultimately, the Congress’s policy on gays in the military is unfortunate, but it is the reality that universities must face for the foreseeable future. Harvard should be prepared to work with this reality, in recognition of a broader national interest. Not only is realism the right policy to adopt in principle, it also has the happy side-effect of hastening the end of unreasonable discrimination against gays in the military. If our objections to recruiters are genuinely based on a concern for gay rights, we do those rights a greater service by welcoming recruiters back to campus.

Cormac A. Early ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Thayer Hall.

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