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Making ROTC Work at Harvard

By William H Ryan

Last week the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps returned to Harvard's campus—over the protestations of transgender rights activists, who noted that the continued exclusion of trans people from the military blatantly violates Harvard's anti-discrimination policy. Amidst all the fanfare, everyone seems to have forgotten why ROTC was initially downgraded to an extracurricular in 1971. President Faust seems to believe that it was because of the Army's Don't Ask Don't Tell Policy, but the Crimson adds the draft and compulsory ROTC enrollment to the list of perpetrators, and The New York Times takes a huge swing in the dark and throws out “The Vietnam War” as the culprit. While all these factors may have helped bolster anti-military sentiment at Harvard, one might argue that the real causes of ROTC’s removal were the fact that Harvard could not exercise control over ROTC, and that it is fundamentally a pre-professional program—both issues which even ROTC's defenders acknowledged were “inordinate favors” to the military. Neither of these issues has been granted even lip service in the public debate over the military’s return, and they must be acknowledged and resolved before ROTC is allowed to remain on Harvard's campus.

The report of the faculty policy committee responsible for removing ROTC indicates that the true reasons for ROTC's removal did not have anything to do with the military's policies as a whole, but rather with the structure of ROTC itself. ROTC is unlike any current Harvard organization in that ROTC units are actually academic departments within universities that are under the control of the United States military. The military gets to decide the content of classes, the credit given out, the students allowed to enroll, and, to a large extent, the instructors who teach its classes, while the university has to support the department and give it Harvard’s imprimatur. This inconsistency almost inevitably results in disparate academic standards, amounts of credit given, and quality of teaching staff within the university. In fact, when Harvard had a military science department many students explicitly took advantage of ROTC’s easier grading to make up classes they had failed. Problems such as this have already cropped up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where some classes give credit but others do not. Such classes can only be harmful to Harvard as a whole and unfair to many students and faculty.

Harvard should not give its blessing to a department which it does not have oversight over, and should not forfeit control over its classes and the lives of its students to any outside organization, including the military. The university does not even allow clubs to be beholden to outside organizations, so it certainly should not allow academic departments, far more critical to the school, to be run by them.

Beyond the structural issues with ROTC, there are serious issues with the classes' content. ROTC classes are inherently practical in nature. While some of these classes may be abstract, most are not, focusing on giving students, as the Army's website puts it, “basic military skills" like navigating the Army's chain of command. These classes are akin to those which would be taught in any other trade school—they teach you how to succeed within your profession, and little else.

While trade schools fulfill an important purpose, explicitly training students for professions is counter to Harvard’s mission. Harvard does not have a journalism, accounting, pre-medicine, or pre-law department. Instead, students interested in those careers have to form extracurricular clubs in order to pursue their interests. Simply put, a department such as ROTC whose purpose is to train students for a career is anathema to the idea of Harvard as a liberal arts college and does a disservice to Harvard students. Students are here for intellectual pursuits, not the pursuit of a job, and neither the military nor anyone else should be allowed to compromise this fact.

As ROTC grows, it is likely that a department will come to Harvard. Currently, the size and shape of that department will ultimately determined by the military, not by Harvard, and the extent to which it grows is the extent to which Harvard veers away from its liberal arts mission. If, after negotiation, the military granted Harvard academic control over the ROTC departments, allowing it to ensure that classes offered within the department were truly intellectual and in line with Harvard's general academic standards, not pre-professional, these worries could be assuaged—such solutions were even suggested at the time of ROTC's removal.

However, for that to happen public discussion over these issues needs to occur, which it has not, in large part due to Harvard's administration. By framing the debate over ROTC as only an issue of gay rights, the administration has misrepresented the causes of ROTC's removal, and in doing so willfully distorted the debate surrounding its return. Reversing a decision Harvard faculty made without explaining why those faculty made that decision in the first place is not transparent, and gives no opportunity to address the fundamental problems that led to ROTC being removed in the first place. These issues must be addressed.

William H. Ryan ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a philosophy concentrator in Quincy House.

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