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Repeating History

By Phillip M. Ramirez, Contributing Writer

If I were asked to describe the current status of the Reserve Officer Training Corps on Harvard’s campus in one word, I would pick “tolerated.” One thing is for sure—I would not even consider the words “included” or “integrated.”

Therefore, I was surprised when I received an email from the UC President and Vice-President, Shaiba Rather ’17 and Danny Banks '17, describing ROTC in exactly those terms. In their September 24 email about the selection of members for the Single-Gender Social Organizations Policy Implementation Committee, they focused on Harvard’s long arc of inclusion. “In 1971,” they wrote, “amidst immense student turmoil ROTC is banned from the campus in rejection of the Vietnam War. Four and a half decades later, in 2016, Air Force ROTC returns to campus. Throughout this story, we see further and further integration and inclusion.”

In truth, the story of Harvard ROTC is far from one of integration and inclusion. Shaiba and Danny should have realized that it is disingenuous to say that ROTC has returned to Harvard’s campus. Perhaps most importantly, they should have known that the current policies surrounding both single gender organizations and ROTC could only be described as unfair, exclusionary, and ill conceived.

ROTC was indeed banned from campus due to intense debate about the Vietnam War in 1971. Harvard once had a flourishing ROTC program. In 1969, Harvard ROTC students numbered more than 260 between the three services. The Professor of Military Science, the head of the campus ROTC program, was recognized as a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Harvard ROTC cadets and midshipmen received course credit for the ROTC courses they were (and still are) required to take.

This all changed when ROTC was banned from campus in 1971. Harvard students were still able to participate in ROTC, but training was conducted on MIT’s campus and Harvard eliminated all institutional support for the program. ROTC was not brought back into the fold until 2011, with the official recognition of Naval ROTC, followed by the Army in 2012 and the Air Force in 2016. Unfortunately, no significant changes have taken place for the students actually participating in the program. All the training still occurs at MIT. A more apt name for Harvard ROTC might be “MIT’s ROTC program that includes Harvard students.” Ultimately, the “inclusion” of the ROTC programs is nothing more than a symbolic gesture until Harvard takes steps to truly bring ROTC back to campus.

The story of ROTC and the recent developments regarding single-gender organizations both reflect a trend of exclusion on the basis of personal affiliation, rather than one of inclusion. A simple comparison between the debates surrounding the banning of ROTC and the sanctioning of single-gender organizations illustrates this.

Both single-gender organizations and ROTC are or were perceived to be antithetical to the values of Harvard as an organization. The administration found these differences to be so divisive that they banned ROTC and severed ties with final clubs in 1985. Since then, Harvard has not recognized any male or female social organizations, and like ROTC, these organizations receive no institutional support.

The University’s issuance of sanctions for single gender organizations last semester furthers this comparison. This was not the first time Harvard considered sanctioning students for their personal affiliations. In the Report of the Harvard University Committee on the Status of ROTC, Harvard faculty wrote:

“Harvard is not and should not be responsible for the policies and practices of the wide variety of external organizations in which its students may choose to participate… Some of our students belong to organizations, such as religious or single-sex social clubs, that have membership requirements which would be impermissible under the University's non-discrimination policy. If they are not conducted as Harvard activities and do not receive direct University support, they do not come under University scrutiny… intrusion by the University into the private choices of students, acting as individuals, to form such associations, receive such support, or participate in such external activities would, we believe, be unacceptably paternalistic.”

Those who wrote the policy concerning ROTC knew that sanctioning students because of personal affiliation was wrong and exclusionary. Even during the heated and one-sided debates of the late 60s, Harvard remembered this. Even when students were being bludgeoned by police officers in front of University Hall for their opposition to ROTC, Harvard remembered this. Even when the nation was tearing at the seams with anti-military and anti-institutional discord, Harvard remembered this. Last semester, with less motivation, less pressure, and less public outcry, Harvard forgot this precedent.

There are fewer than 40 ROTC students on campus today compared to more than 260 in 1969. Harvard decimated the ROTC program on campus, failing in its mission to educate all citizens for 40 years by leaving out a significant segment of society—the leaders of the U.S. military. They still have not made the appropriate amends.

Today, much like in 1971, Harvard is attempting to exclude students from the full educational experience at this university because of their independent associations. They are setting a dangerous precedent for students, a “values test” as Professor Harry Lewis states, a precedent that can just as easily be used to punish those students who courageously choose to serve their country if the tide of public opinion were to turn once again.

Edmund Burke said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” To Shaiba, Danny, and all members of the Harvard administration and faculty: I implore you to understand the mistakes of the past so you do not repeat them in the future. I can only hope that you look to the history of ROTC to see the results of such exclusionary policies and how history has judged the actions of your predecessors and how it may judge yours.


Phillip M. Ramirez '18, a current Naval ROTC midshipman, is a government concentrator in Mather House.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Harvard’s ROTC program, the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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