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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Faculty Recall ROTC History

By Tara W. Merrigan and Zoe A. Y. Weinberg, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard’s recognition of the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps last Friday—following a 40-year hiatus of the program on campus—marks a turning point in University relations with the military.

Since ROTC’s withdrawal from campus in 1969 in the midst of anti-military sentiment during the Vietnam War, the atmosphere at Harvard has changed significantly, professors said.

The debate about ROTC’s role at Harvard since the 1990s has centered primarily around “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a military policy that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. The policy was repealed in December, but will not be formally implemented until later this year.

According to Computer Science Professor and former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, opposition to ROTC today is much more tempered than the strong anti-military sentiment in the late 1960s and 1970s, in part because of the more diversified nature of the student body.

Lewis said the College of forty years ago was largely comprised of bicoastal, privileged students that tended away from military service.

Now, there are more students at Harvard from communities where the military is highly valued and where “serving in the military is something people do,” he said.

Lewis added that the draft during the Vietnam War led to heightened emotions towards the armed forces.

“The military draft created a very different spirit,” Lewis said. “The College was both a sanctuary from war and a prison for students.”

Assistant Government Professor Michael L. Frazer said that changes in attitudes about the military on campus may be a reflection of historical circumstance.

“You have to distinguish between a general pacifism from opposition to particular wars that are thought to be unjust,” he said. “Presumably you don’t have anti-military sentiments for no reason.”

The University’s relationship with the armed services has warmed significantly in recent years. Since 2008, University President Drew G. Faust has attended the spring ROTC commissioning ceremony, continuing a precedent set by her predecessor Lawrence H. Summers. During a campus event with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael G. Mullen in November, Faust made  it clear that ROTC would be welcomed back when the military changed its policy on gays and lesbians.

Several professors expressed approval for the University’s recent recognition of NROTC, which was formalized at a ceremony on Friday.

“I favor the return of ROTC to campus,” Professor Theda R. Skocpol wrote in an e-mail. “Harvard is now in a position to support and honor those who choose to serve in the military.”

While Professor John E. Dowling expressed his support for the return of NROTC, he said he was upset that the decision to recognize the program was made without any faculty-wide discussion. He said he hopes that the administration will consult the faculty if military classes will ever be adopted into the curriculum.

“Maybe the president feels she doesn’t need to discuss this with the faculty,” he said.

However, professors said that they look forward to a closer relationship with the military.

“In general, it will be a good thing for the country if stronger mutual relationships are forged between universities and the officers in our military,” Skocpol wrote. “Both institutions have things to learn from one another.”

—Staff writer Tara W. Merrigan can be reached at tmerrigan@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Zoe. A.Y. Weinberg can be reached at zoe.weinberg@college.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction.

CORRECTION: APRIL 3, 2011

The March 10 article "Faculty Recall ROTC History" misstated Professor John E. Dowling's name. He is John—not Michael—Dowling.

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