At the Las Vegas Democratic debate on Jan. 15, all three leading Democratic presidential candidates pledged to “vigorously enforce” the Solomon Amendment. If enforced, this amendment would revoke federal funding from universities, like Columbia, that refuse to allow Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs or military recruiters on campus. Regardless of whether that happens—and notwithstanding the military’s policies toward homosexuals—it is time for Columbia to abandon its policy barring ROTC from campus.
Columbia hosted a strong naval ROTC program until 1969, when the University stopped the program in response to the previous year’s protests and widespread anti-war sentiment among students and faculty. When the University Senate revisited the issue in 2005, it voted not to allow ROTC back on campus until the U.S. military repeals “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), the much-reviled policy that prohibits openly homosexual individuals from serving in the military. Today, Columbia students who wish to join ROTC must commute to Fordham University or Manhattan College for physical training and military-science courses. Columbia’s opposition to ROTC marginalizes such students and makes it harder for them to gain financial aid, military training, and firsthand insight into military life through ROTC. Moreover, allowing ROTC on campus would make Columbia affordable for students who might otherwise be unable to attend and might thereby contribute to campus diversity.
Opponents of ROTC argue that the program’s treatment of gays and lesbians violates the University’s anti-discrimination protocols. Those protocols should be enforced against businesses and other institutions, but the U.S. military is in a different category altogether. For all its faults, the military has too integral a role in American culture and society to be summarily banned from campus. Concerns about discrimination are surely legitimate, and any future ROTC program should be designed with the rights of LGBT students in mind. Columbia should look to the example set by MIT, which reimburses the Department of Defense on behalf of students removed from ROTC due to their sexual orientation. But to deny the military access to campus outright disengages Columbia from military issues and renders the University largely irrelevant in discussions of how issues like DADT should be addressed.
Columbia’s opposition to ROTC has failed to end DADT. In the meantime, without an ROTC program on campus, there has been little discussion of DADT and little effort to effect change. DADT is an unjust and impractical policy, but it must be fought in a way that does not sideline would-be military officers—or would-be Columbia students who may be dissuaded from applying. ROTC’s return to campus would be the perfect occasion for a major speech by University President Lee Bollinger articulating Columbia’s opposition to DADT. A forceful denunciation of DADT would send a clearer message of where Columbia stands than does the University’s current policy.
By welcoming ROTC back to campus, Columbia has the opportunity to gain a more diverse student body and an improved connection to national issues. At the same time, the University can take a stronger stance against DADT by actively engaging with the military. It is not inconsistent to support ROTC while opposing DADT. By repeatedly inviting controversial speakers to campus, Columbia has proven that it understands the benefits of interacting with that which it finds morally wrong. Likewise, bringing ROTC back to campus is by no means a blanket endorsement of its policies. Rather, doing so provides the University with a greater opportunity to challenge them—as it must.