ROTC: Return of the Corps?

It is time to return the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program to the Colgate campus. In light of the recent unanimous Supreme Court decision supporting the right of military recruiters to have access to campuses that receive federal funds (as Colgate does), there is no logical or legal reason for denying Colgate students the option of entering a ROTC program on their own campus if they so choose. The historical denigration of military service that the refusal to have ROTC on our campus represents is offensive to many alums who are proud graduates of ROTC, and is seriously outdated morally, practically and politically in the current era. The choice to join or not join ROTC on campus should be made by the students themselves, not arbitrarily removed from consideration by the University for essentially political and ideological reasons from another era that are increasingly irrelevant to our current reality, if they were ever so.

The elimination of the ROTC choice for students at Colgate is an artifact of the Vietnam War Era, an anachronism in the 21st century, the post-9/11 era that we all live in. Colgate had a long and proud history of ROTC around 1970, before radical professors and students politically coerced the school into dropping the ROTC career option. (This conclusion is based on research that a student did for my Vietnam War seminar.)

This was an insult to our ROTC alums then; it is an insult today.

Mind you, ROTC was and would be completely voluntary at Colgate. But the radical left on campus has decided for all students – whether they all agree or not – that they can no longer have the option to serve their country in return for the financial aid that is extended to people in the program. ROTC was not and is not a “rich kids” program, but it overwhelmingly served and serves middle class kids, many from modest circumstances, whose families were and are increasingly burdened by ballooning tuition costs. It is worth noting that newly-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito testified in his confirmation hearings before Congress that he probably could not have afforded to go to Princeton as an undergraduate if not for ROTC tuition aid he received given his family’s modest economic circumstances.

The inclusion of the ROTC option would be good for Colgate and the armed forces. In terms of the University, students with such a military education would have a chance to experience a diverse set of attitudes that are now under-represented on campus. Inclusion would open up the American educational experience in all its diversity to our armed forces, and not leave civilian education abandoned to people who have spent their entire professional lives in an academic setting. Students also would be introduced to new ways of thinking of the world they live in and the ways in which we are to protect ourselves from the dangers we face in the future. This is a viewpoint that is sadly missing from our ideologically limited campus community.

Moreover, ROTC training teaches leadership skills, one of Colgate’s stated pedagogical goals. Many leaders in the military, public and private sectors are ROTC alums (including many Colgate graduates). Perhaps the most prominent ROTC graduate among American leaders, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, has called ROTC “vital to democracy.” More than 900 colleges and universities have Air Force ROTC programs, more than 800 have Army ROTC programs, and a comparable number of schools have Navy ROTC programs. Alas, Colgate is being left behind for ideological reasons stuck in the murky past of an increasingly ossified and “politically correct” campus leadership, among both faculty and the administration.

When ROTC was banned from the Colgate campus in the Vietnam Era, there was a universal military draft. But there is no longer a military draft, and there has not been one since the early 1970s. It has long been a new era of a volunteer military where this noble service to country is a matter of choice without the societal pressures that existed in the 1960s. Yet at Colgate, such voluntarism and opportunity are eliminated by the absence of an ROTC option.

(Admittedly, I was not in college and did not have the ROTC option; thus, I was subject to the draft. I chose to join the United States Air Force as an enlisted man in 1967 and served 38 months served in Asia. Personally, I would not exchange that experience for anything.)

As noted above in Justice Alito’s case, the inclusion of ROTC could allow types of people to attend an expensive school like Colgate that ordinarily would or could not do so. This has to offer, by definition, greater student body diversity. Currently, by attending ROTC classes and making a commitment to serve for four years after graduation in the Air Force, Navy or Army, students can qualify for as much as $17,000 a year in tuition support. Yet, if a student finds that ROTC is not for them, he or she can leave after the first year with no obligation.

As Secretary Powell and many others have pointed out, the infusion of “citizen-soldiers” are crucial to maintaining a “people’s military.” One study suggests that, because of the restriction of ROTC and other military programs in some leading educational institutions, too many military leaders today have been educated in strictly military-oriented institutions. This has produced a highly efficient, extraordinarily accomplished military force. But this has been accomplished at the expense of social – though not ethnic, racial, gender and most other categories of diversity – pluralism. The “average citizen” – in military terms, civilian-oriented – has increasingly been excluded from leadership roles. This is what Secretary Powell means when he says ROTC is “vital to democracy.” We need a greater infusion of civilian-oriented personnel into the military to broaden its perspective.

Colgate can becomea leader in the new civilian-military ethos in America. But it should be the students and their families who decide this question of participation on an individual basis, not outdated faculty or administration critics.