It is no secret that Columbia students are passionate about debating ROTC. Personally, I have supported allowing ROTC to return for a while, but having both fellow College Democrats and good friends on the various sides of this debate has been frustrating and at the same time incredibly enlightening.
As ROTC became an issue following DADT’s repeal this winter, the College Democrats’ executive board began discussing where we, as Democrats and as Columbia students, stand on this controversial issue. Putting President Obama’s well known feelings about ROTC aside, we considered arguments for and against the program and our own progressive beliefs. Ultimately, our thoughts on this debate are as follows.
There are two prevailing arguments against allowing an ROTC program on campus. First, some students are concerned that any military program on campus would fundamentally change Columbia. Second, some students are concerned that an ROTC program would violate the University’s nondiscrimination policy because our transgender community would not be able to participate under current military policy.
Regarding Columbia, it is hyperbolic to believe that an ROTC program would have a dominant role on campus. While more students would participate than there are involved right now, it would not redefine the “Columbia experience” for those not involved. We would not see changes to our graduation requirements, major curriculum, or any other aspects of campus life. Aside from the exceptionally rare occasion of seeing a fellow Columbia or Barnard student in uniform, the experience of those who don’t engage with the program would not be any different. However, students who choose to participate would benefit from excellent scholarships, career opportunities, and an experience that is currently not easily accessible for any student.
While there are many military policies that need to be changed, refusing to interact with the institutions that shape our country until they are perfect is not a solution. The US military is far from perfect, but problems come from bad policy—policies that can be changed by our political leaders. I support Columbia’s nondiscrimination policy, but not allowing ROTC on this basis alone will not have any influence on reforming the military. Instead, we should push our civilian leaders to direct better policy if we want equal opportunity. I would happily join other Columbia students in leading activism for policy reform. From meeting with members of Congress who work on these issues to working with a non-profit that focuses on reforming military policy, there are many progressive options for activists. As we saw with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” changes that were considered virtually impossible a decade ago can be made when we work for them.
I am proud that we hold ourselves and members of our community to a higher moral standard. We know that the world outside our Morningside Heights bubble isn’t perfect, and we will carry the values that we cultivate here with us into our future careers and communities. I believe that the people who share these values are those we should want serving in institutions with a legacy of needing reform. Instead of discouraging service by those who share our values, shouldn’t we encourage them to lead us in improving flawed institutions?
As progressives, we should never accept discrimination and should always be seeking the most innovative ways to improve our nation. By pushing for reform politically and instilling the belief in our future military leaders that discrimination is unacceptable, we would do far more for Columbia’s transgender community and the university than by barring ROTC from campus. Opening an opportunity for the program wouldn’t bring ROTC to campus right away or even definitely, but would let us discuss what we want a Columbia program to look like. Let’s take a progressive approach to bringing a great opportunity to our campus. Reconsider ROTC.
The author is a Barnard College senior majoring in political science. She is the president of the Columbia University College Democrats.