With the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell," elite colleges now have a chance to make good on their promises and bring the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps back to campuses.
For the past four decades, ROTC has been barred from some of the nation’s most prestigious schools, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Stanford. The program was first pushed off campuses in the 1960s and ’70s in protest of the Vietnam War and has been kept away in protest of government policy excluding openly gay men and women from serving in the Armed Forces.
"I look forward to pursuing discussions with military officials and others to achieve Harvard’s full and formal recognition of ROTC," school President Drew Gilpin Faust said in a statement. Likewise, Columbia’s Lee Bollinger celebrated the legislation: "We now have the opportunity for a new era in the relationship between universities and our military services."
Achieving formal recognition for ROTC on elite campuses will be an important victory. It will eliminate some of the more backhanded arrangements the various universities created to justify their acceptance of ROTC dollars. For example, Harvard’s practice has been to "allow" patriotic alumni to pay cadets’ ROTC fees through a private trust fund.
As welcome as these changes will be, however, the lifting of the ban against ROTC will be a lost opportunity unless advocates press both universities and the military for more substantive changes.
The chief hurdle is that bringing ROTC to campuses is expensive. Several liberal commentators and faculty have recently observed — with more than a touch of triumph — that a money-strapped Pentagon is unlikely to establish new units where there has been such limited student interest.
At the same time, however, top military leadership has become increasingly aware of the social costs associated with current policy. In a speech at Duke University in September, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the military’s limited presence in the Northeast and urban areas has left large swaths of the country "void of relationships and understanding of the Armed Forces." If the Pentagon is serious about these "costs," it will have to push its own manpower bureaucracy to invest in a more balanced officer corps.
Elite universities, in turn, clearly have an important role to play in redressing the growing social and geographic imbalances within the military. While the Pentagon must be willing to step forward, universities can shoulder some of the costs involved in renewing ROTC programs.
Top-tier schools should aim to have top-tier ROTC programs. In so doing, they would help ensure that the American officer corps reflects America as a whole — thereby allowing ROTC to fulfill its original purpose. No less important, returning ROTC to elite university campuses will restore a proud tradition of military service.
The repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell" provides an opening for repairing relations between some of the nation’s top universities and the armed forces — a rift that has been unhealthy for schools, their students and the military.
It is an opportunity that should not go to waste.
This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.