No ROTC at Columbia

March 21, 2011

In the wake of the recent repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the policy discriminating against gays and lesbians in the U.S. military, a renewed effort is underway on college campuses to revive the Reserve Officer Training Corps--which had been banned because its presence violated anti-discrimination policies. Here, Sara Gatling and Akua Ofori, student activists at Columbia University, explain why they're part of a movement to prevent ROTC from returning to campus.

THE RESERVE Officer Training Corps (ROTC) is a college-based program that trains its participants to serve as officers in the armed forces for college credit. ROTC offers a variety of military-related courses such as "Foundations of Leadership," "Air Assault" and "Staff Organization and Operations," often providing full tuition coverage in exchange for an extended term of service.

There was a de facto ban of ROTC on Columbia's campus in 1969 after students and faculty protested its presence primarily on the grounds that U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam war was contrary to the principles of an academic institution. Beyond the military's involvement in what many students and faculty considered to be a purely imperialistic war, the ROTC Vitalization Act of 1964 was essential in removing ROTC from campus. The act states:

No unit may be established or maintained at an institution unless the senior commissioned officer of the armed force concerned who is assigned to the program at that institution is given the academic rank of professor...the institution adopts, as a part of its curriculum, a four-year course of military instruction or a two-year course of advanced training of military instruction, or both, which the secretary of the military department concerned prescribes and conducts.

Under this law, Columbia would have no jurisdiction regarding ROTC courses and faculty, so the university did not agree to its terms, thus leading to a de facto ban of ROTC on campus. The 1969 University Council resolution prevented military training courses from being counted for academic credit, disallowed military instructors from holding academic rank, and prohibited ROTC from using Columbia's facilities for military training.

Since then, ROTC has not had a formal presence on Columbia's campus although over the course of the past 42 years, the administration has on numerous occasions attempted to bring ROTC back. In 2001, 2005 and 2008, the issue of welcoming ROTC back to campus was raised, and each time, the University Senate voted down the program's reinstitution on campus.

AFTER THE recent repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy that institutionalized discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals in the military, Columbia's administrators reintroduced whether ROTC should be allowed back on campus.

Literally a day after the repeal, the Student Affairs Committee of the University Senate announced that it would be forming a task force to oversee this discussion in the spring 2011 semester. University President Lee Bollinger, stated that the repeal "effectively ends what has been a vexing problem for higher education, including at Columbia--given our desire to be open to our military, but not wanting to violate our own core principle against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."

In response to the university's attempt to bring back ROTC on campus, a group of students have formed the "No ROTC" coalition that is organizing to ensure that ROTC remains off campus. The coalition, which consists of campus groups including Students for Justice in Palestine, LUCHA and the International Socialist Organization, as well as individual students, opposes ROTC for several reasons.

First, the recent repeal of DADT does not guarantee equal treatment of service members who identify as gay or lesbian. The military, even with the repeal, continues to discriminate against those identifying as transgender. Moreover, DADT was not the basis on which ROTC was discontinued at Columbia. Rather, it was removed due to its incomparability to the academic setting and anti-militarism on campus; thus, it is dishonest that the university has reintroduced this debate in the manner it did.

Second, ROTC is an arm of the U.S. military, an institution authorized to use lethal force in order to maximize geopolitical and ideological domination around the world as evident with the two ongoing, unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq today.

It is argued that Columbia should play a role in "educating better leaders" for the military. However, the military is an institution that is part of a pervasive system that does not change policy merely to reflect the views of the individuals within it. It is a hierarchical institution that operates under a chain of command.

Allowing ROTC at Columbia to train cadets for the military will effectively militarize the campus. The pro-ROTC side's main argument has been that soldiers and veterans should be allowed on campus, however that is currently happening under Columbia's policy. In fact, Columbia has the most veterans out of all the Ivy Leagues.

Third, ROTC is presented as an "opportunity" for low-income students to attend an Ivy League institution. Effectively, this cynical argument accepts that low-income students should serve in the military service in order to get an education, while, ironically, billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on brutal wars abroad and federal funding for financial aid is drastically cut.

Rather than supporting this, Columbia should invest in financial aid opportunities for low-income students that do not require military service. Further, if Columbia cares about low-income students, it should lobby against the impending cuts against Pell grants proposed by the Obama administration.

IN ADDITION to these points of contention, the coalition and even some pro-ROTC individuals have criticized the university for the undemocratic nature through which it has been coordinating this decision process. The task force has claimed that its "top priority is that the student voice is heard. Thus, this will be a student-driven, not a faculty-dominated process."

However, the two months of debate and discussion has been less than inclusive of the student population. There were two main channels through which students could voice their opinions: one was through town hall meetings (three all together) and another through a university poll with eight questions that asked students their views on ROTC, the ongoing wars, and numerous questions that were vaguely related to the topic at hand.

The poll, which itself had flaws that can only be described as an opportunistic oversight, was limited to only five colleges at the university, thus polling a minority of students. Moreover, the task force never responded to any questions raised by speakers at the town hall.

In addition to these issues, the taskforce has failed to disseminate any information to the wider student body about what the ROTC program is and what its return concretely means for the campus. Without any specific information to reference, it is highly questionable whether the university poll is even valid.

The debate over ROTC so far has been limited. The No ROTC Coalition would like the taskforce to create literature and hold information sessions addressing basic issues regarding ROTC funding, courses, eligibility and other issues.

Despite being misrepresented by tabloid-style conservative media sources like the New York Post and Fox News, the anti-ROTC coalition has been persistent and successful in its organizing. Through routine tablings, panel events, dorm-storming and media outreach, we have been able to keep the anti-ROTC arguments prominent in the debate.

The coalition plans to continue reaching out to the student body and holding events to expose the undemocratic nature of this debate, as well as the key problems with ROTCs return to campus.

We oppose the militarization of our campus and aim to continue organizing, particularly against the ongoing wars and imperialist policies waged by the U.S.

One key step is to help organize a student contingent in the April 9 United National Antiwar Committee antiwar marches, where student groups can articulate an antiwar, anti-imperialist and anti-militarization argument--as well as network with each other to rebuild a strong student antiwar movement.

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