Year in Review

Welcoming Back ROTC

Harvard was right to welcome the military, but should work to reform it

On December 2, 1968, the editorial board of The Harvard Crimson urged the University faculty to abolish the Reserve Officer Training Corps on the nation’s oldest campus.

By virtue of accepting the institution of the military, our editorial board argued, Harvard was essentially legitimizing the idea that universities and the military should work hand in hand, a notion that in those days The Crimson was simply unwilling to accept. Suspicious of “the over-expansion of the American military machine,” the board concluded that “ending ROTC at Harvard will help to create the critical independent spirit which should be the only ideology of a university.” And although that stance seems to have characterized Harvard’s attitude to the military for the next four decades, opinions on the subject—even at The Crimson—were never unanimous.

On that same day, for instance, The Crimson also published a dissenting opinion by a minority of the editorial board, which rejected the premise that the University should brush aside the institution of the military altogether. “To justify a permanent exclusion of the army and navy from Harvard,” they argued, “one must characterize them as inherently and irrevocably evil, as somehow beyond the pale of civilized society.” In their eyes, this view was as naïve as it was impractical. More than 40 years after what ultimately became the University’s decision to ban ROTC—in a time when the infamously discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation has been successfully repealed—we share the sentiment of this minority.

As President Obama said of ROTC in his Jan. 26 State of the Union address: “It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.” We could not agree more. Now that the military no longer excludes openly gay individuals from military service, we are delighted that President Drew G. Faust has followed through on her promise and welcomed ROTC back on campus. Just as our colleagues wrote over 40 years ago in their minority opinion, the military is an institution that has much to contribute to a university community and vice versa.

This past November, Faust made the case for ROTC’s return at the Institute of Politics, conditioned upon the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: “I want to be the president of Harvard who sees the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” she said, “because I want to be able to take the steps to ensure that any and every Harvard student is able to make the honorable and admirable choice to commit him or herself to the nation’s defense.”


Although many were skeptical of whether the University would take any action following the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Faust remained true to her word, and her promise became a reality on March 4, 2011. Although the faculty was not entirely pleased with the president’s decision, we admire that she made it. Absent its prior objectionable compulsory and discriminatory policies, ROTC deserves recognition as a legitimate pre-professional track at Harvard. The University supports pre-law, pre-med and pre-business activities on the part of its students; it should also support pre-military study.

Most importantly, however, there can be no better context for an ROTC education than within Harvard’s curriculum and values. It is here that the complexities of moral philosophy, modern politics, and military instruction can be put into dialogue in the grand humanistic tradition of America’s greatest university. Students and teachers of all disciplines and political persuasions challenge and edify each other, and we are confident that the fruits of their considered conversations will redound to the benefit of our nation.

Those things aside, however, there is still a group of Americans that the military excludes from service, which complicates any defense of ROTC’s return to Harvard.

Even though the repeal of DADT will permit openly gay citizens to serve in the military, transgender and intersex individuals are still prohibited from service. In that sense, then, it might seem hypocritical to urge the University to support the ROTC students, especially when Harvard has a non-discrimination policy, which states that any form of discrimination “based on race, color, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, age, national or ethnic origin, political beliefs, veteran status, or disability unrelated to course requirements” is inconsistent with its principles. Given these facts, some may wonder how the return of ROTC can ever be justified.

Essentially, we believe that the military’s current discriminatory policies are deplorable and should be abandoned. Stories of individuals like Jack K., a third-year student at Harvard Law School who cannot return to the military because of his trans identity, are disheartening and cause for concern. There is no conceivable reason for the United States to deny certain citizens the right to serve their country, especially when countries such as Spain, Norway, and New Zealand have already passed legislation that welcomes transgender people into the armed forces. For the sake and conscience of all Americans, the United States military must be made to do the same. To that end, we also believe that the most effective way to eradicate discrimination within the military is through the involvement of progressive and powerful institutions such as Harvard.

This, in a sense, is the argument for a closer relationship between the military and the academy, something our colleagues in 1968 were unwilling to accept: Only through engagement with the academy and academic discourse can the military ever be reformed. Indeed, that America’s preeminent universities have turned their backs on the military for so long may be part of the reason their progressive values are nowhere to be found within its ranks. In order to see those values translated into realities, the answer is not to continue spurning the military but to embrace it and to seize an active role in recreating it.

In the spirit of the Edmund Burke, who famously wrote that no one “makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he could only do a little,” Harvard should recognize ROTC in the attempt to reform from within a system with a major institutional flaw. We would all benefit from a more tolerant military, and, in true Burkean fashion, recognizing ROTC—rather than rejecting it—seems the most promising route to accomplishing that necessary goal at this point in time.