In physical terms, the trip Harvard junior Victoria Migdal makes five times a week to train with MIT’s Reserve Officer Training Corps spans a mere two miles.
The cultural gap it represents between the military and Migdal’s school—which has not had its own ROTC program since 1969—can seem much greater.
“I think a lot of people here don’t know [ROTC] is really an option,” said Migdal, one of about 20 Harvard cadets who commutes to MIT for training. “We interact with a very limited amount of the student body.”
The coming repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law banning gays and lesbians from open service in the U.S. military, which Harvard and other colleges without ROTC groups have cited for years as a violation of their anti-discrimination policies, will test the will of both sides to bridge that gap. In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called on such colleges to bring the officer training program back.
Many of those colleges responded enthusiastically. Yale is discussing reinstating ROTC with military officials, according to university spokeswoman Kianti Thomas. Columbia University and Brown University have formed task forces to examine the issue. And Harvard announced Thursday that when the repeal goes through, the school will officially recognize Naval ROTC for the first time in 40 years, pay MIT’s expenses for hosting Harvard cadets, and give the group an office and athletic facilities.
But campus queer rights groups say the military still violates their schools’ policies by excluding transgender people. Even ROTC advocates say financial considerations may doom efforts to restore the program fully.
And according to University of Florida law professor Diane Mazur, both sides misunderstand the history of the ROTC’s disappearance from the nation’s most elite universities.
Not banned, just disconnected
Colleges, military officials and the media often refer to a “ban” on the ROTC at schools that do not have it, said Mazur, a former Air Force officer and author of “A More Perfect Military: How the Constitution Can Make our Military Stronger.” But any school that banned the ROTC outright would be subject to the Solomon Amendment, a law stripping federal funding from colleges that prevent military presence on campus.
“If you went to a university president and said, ‘Can you reach in your file cabinet and show me the ban?’ they would say, ‘Uhhh…,” Mazur said.
Defense Department spokeswoman Eileen Lainez confirmed that no colleges currently prohibit the ROTC’s presence. In addition to the 489 schools that host the program, about 2,400 schools with no ROTC group of their own have “cross-town arrangements” that let their students attend ROTC at other institutions, as Harvard does with MIT, Lainez wrote in an e-mail.
Most people believe colleges kicked out ROTC programs in the 1960s due to opposition to the Vietnam War, then kept them away because of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In reality, the military ended ROTC programs on many Northeastern campuses because it needed to downsize, and other areas of the country were more welcoming, Mazur said.
Colleges initially begged the military to stay, Mazur said. But over time, a disconnect grew between the institutions and the armed forces. The myth of a ban may give both sides an excuse not to address it.
Lainez said she could not speculate whether the Defense Department would reinstate ROTC at the schools with which it has opened discussions. She stressed that using its resources efficiently is the department’s primary concern.
But Mazur dismissed the notion that the military will step outside its comfort zone. Harvard’s recognition of Naval ROTC is just symbolic, she said.
“I’d be amazed if we had ROTC on these campuses that do not have ROTC today,” she said.
Doors still closed to open service
That would be welcome news to Brown sophomore Gabe Schwartz.
If Brown brings back ROTC, it will indicate to transgender students that their rights matter less than those of other identity groups, said Schwartz, the co-chair of the university’s Queer Political Action Committee.
“The real message you’re sending to these people is, ‘Well, we have policies as long as they’re convenient,’” Schwartz said.
Marco Chan, co-chair of Harvard Queer Students and Allies, said his organization opposes the return of ROTC to Harvard for reasons similar to Schwartz’s. The QSA’s Transgender Task Force sent Harvard President Drew Faust a letter expressing this opinion and is circulating a petition in hopes of raising students’ awareness, Chan said.
In light of the military’s acceptance of gays, which would have been unthinkable several years ago, Chan said he thinks it will someday open its doors to transgender and intersex individuals as well. That will clear the way for Harvard to address the disconnect that Mazur described between the military and the Ivy League.
Schwartz also acknowledged that estrangement, which he attributed to overarching political polarization on Brown’s campus. But he questioned whether returning the military to the university would lead to increased dialogue.
“The people who would be joining ROTC are more on the right anyway,” he said. “I think it’ll only start fostering a widening of that division.”
Most of Migdal’s ROTC-related exchanges with the Harvard community have been positive, she said. Students tend to be curious, not hostile. Sometimes when she’s in uniform on campus, people thank her for serving. But even if ROTC comes back to her school, finding students who want to participate will take time.
“I’m not expecting a battalion to show up at Harvard starting next year,” she said.
The chicken and the egg
According to one of ROTC’s staunchest allies, that low level of interest will likely maintain itself.
With only 20 cadets at Harvard, the military will not commit its resources to bringing the school a full-fledged ROTC program, which might gradually attract more participants, said head of Harvard Advocates for ROTC Paul E. Mawn. Based on his experience, said Mawn—a retired naval captain and 1963 Harvard graduate—a group so small would not provide enough leadership experience to justify its existence.
“It’s a chicken and egg situation,” Mawn said. “There’s very few organizations in the federal government looking for ways to spend extra money, particularly the Pentagon.”
Mazur agrees that the costs of staffing and maintaining a ROTC unit pose an additional obstacle to reinstating the program. But the services and schools might find the funds to overcome that problem if they prioritized building bridges between themselves—a choice both sides should make if they want to see change, she said.
“If you think the military is not making smart decisions… the solution is not to push the military further away,” Mazur said.
In Mawn’s opinion, the burden of bridge-building lies mostly with his alma mater. In a February interview, he described the actions Harvard promised in its announcement as “three things they should do yesterday” if the university is serious about drawing the military back to its campus.
With these steps completed, the military might take Harvard’s bid for an ROTC program of its own more seriously. That would be a great development for the university’s character, Mawn said.
“[ROTC students] are squared away for four years,” Mawn said. “They’re not going out and blowing dope—that’s not part of the culture.”
The renewed official relationship between Harvard and Naval ROTC represents an advance for the university, President Drew Faust said according to a Harvard news release Thursday.
“It broadens the pathways for students to participate in an honorable and admirable calling,” Faust said.
For Migdal, ROTC has been a test of strength and a source of character growth. Now in her third year of ROTC—the program’s most intense segment—she said she values the experience despite the logistical challenges.
Because of the benefits students and the military can draw from interacting, Mazur said she hopes Obama’s call for colleges to embrace ROTC will at least generate honest discussion.
“Maybe it will give us the opportunity to have a very candid conversation about what’s the place of the military in the university and the university in the military,” Mazur said.