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Harvard University treats the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps like a final club: It refuses to recognize the program. Yet the military is preparing to lift its ban on homosexuals, the ostensible reason for ROTC’s exile. Is President Drew Faust practicing her salute? “There are not currently any plans to modify the arrangement,” John Longbrake, senior director of communications for the University, wrote in an e-mail. “We will of course follow any federal policy changes with interest.”
So will I. Even if Congress repeals “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” ROTC will struggle to gain recognition.
Why the skepticism? Because excuses for the University’s policy have multiplied over time. Before 1993, students used ROTC’s exclusion of disabled people, President Ronald Reagan’s budgetary cuts to civilian aid, and the military’s discouragement of “openness and critical inquiry” as grounds to repel ROTC. The Harvard Crimson argued that the program would sully the University’s academic integrity. In 1989, the editorial board insisted, “ROTC should not return ever, under any circumstances.” Should Congress abolish DADT, more excuses will crop up.
Not necessarily among students. Last spring, the Harvard Republican Club held an online poll in which 62 percent of the 1,700 undergraduates who responded supported recognition of ROTC.
Even the activists are laissez-faire. For example, the Student Labor Action Movement, which protested military recruitment on campus four years ago, has no plans to oppose ROTC. “The tentative consensus at the moment among our membership is that we will not protest the return of ROTC to Harvard’s campus, if President Obama ends ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Remeike J.B. Forbes ’11, a member of SLAM, wrote in an e-mail.
No, excuses are more likely to pop up among professors. Some of them “don’t view military training as academic,” Paul E. Mawn ’63, chairman of Advocates for ROTC, told me. “Some of the training I got when I was a midshipman was as tough and as challenging as any Harvard course I took. Marine engineering? You don’t get stuff like that anywhere else,” said Mawn, a retired Navy captain.
The faculty raised this objection in the 1970s: Warfare is a trade and thus irrelevant to liberal education. Stephen J. Chapman ’76, who as a student tried to reboot ROTC, told me, “Someone at the time asked me, ‘Would you allow someone to teach a course on welding?’ I said, ‘No but I don’t really think that’s the same thing.’ It struck me that you wanted military officers to get a liberal education but that wasn’t the common sentiment.”
Nor is it today. The best argument for ROTC is not that it complements liberal education but that it promotes public service. “Harvard is supposedly about public service,” Mawn said. “Never do they mention anything about the military in terms of public service.” Yes, President Faust attends the commissioning ceremony. But the University disrespects cadets by formally ignoring their service—particularly when it praises all other forms of service. Instead, the University awkwardly acknowledges ROTC’s existence but holds its applause, acting as if the program were “the crazy uncle in the attic,” said Mawn.
And for no good reason. To recognize ROTC would not be to violate the University’s policy against discrimination. Unlike final clubs, whose students restrict membership, ROTC excludes homosexuals because Congress says so. To recognize ROTC would merely be to honor it—no assembly required. “If a lightning bolt hit Drew Faust and the Corporation tomorrow and they decided to recognize ROTC, there’s not enough critical mass to form separate battalions…The Pentagon is not champing at the bit to have the administration get ROTC back on campus like it used to be,” Mawn said.
Despite my skepticism, the University seems headed toward recognition. The professors whom Mawn believes oppose ROTC are “remnants of what I would call the Woodstock generation. These people supported the Vietcong. They view themselves as veterans of the anti-war movement.” Although Mawn respects their right to express their opinion, he adds, “The light at the end of the tunnel is that those people will filter out.”
Until then, proponents of ROTC should stress Harvard’s dedication to public service to bolster their argument. They also should prepare for a long haul. Remember that the Crimson reported “some ROTC officials are confidently predicting that Harvard will have its own detachment again within six years.”
Brian J. Bolduc ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays. appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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