The University Senate took a major step toward inviting ROTC back to Columbia on Friday, voting to support the return of the military training program that has been absent from campus for more than 40 years.
The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps has not been present at Columbia since 1969, when campus protests over the Vietnam War led to its ouster.
“This is a great day for Columbia. This is a great day for America,” said Tao Tan, CC ’07, Business ’11 and the chair of the senate’s Student Affairs Committee, after the vote. “We have put behind us a painful disagreement of our past and have taken a step forward toward our shared future.”
The senate voted 51-17, with one abstention, to approve the ROTC resolution. The resolution’s key clause states, “Columbia University welcomes the opportunity to explore mutually beneficial relationships with the Armed Forces of the United States, including participation in the programs of the Reserve Officers Training Corps.”
A group of about 20 protesters opposed to ROTC gathered on Amsterdam Avenue, across the street from Jerome Greene Hall, where the senate meeting took place. They chanted and drummed, drawing the attention of passersby, but they did not disrupt the meeting.
The senate vote was the final step in the process of debating an ROTC return, which began in December after the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The policy had prohibited gays from serving openly and had been used as an argument against inviting ROTC back to Columbia.
Journalism School student senator Andrew Springer, an ROTC supporter, said that the vote will benefit future Columbia students.
“Young people who want to serve their country and get the benefits of the ROTC program will hopefully finally be able to,” Springer said.
WHAT COMES NEXT
The resolution’s passage does not guarantee that ROTC will return to Columbia. A branch of the military would need to agree to start a program here, and then University President Lee Bollinger and other administrators would need to negotiate the terms of the program with the Department of Defense. Bollinger said he thinks that “one branch does want” to start a program at Columbia.
Bollinger also noted during the meeting that he will continue to discuss the ROTC question with Columbia’s Council of Deans, but he seemed to indicate that senate approval is enough for him to start negotiations with the DoD.
“This is a powerful, powerful vote here, in my mind,” Bollinger said.
Shortly after the meeting, the University released a statement praising the senate’s proceedings.
“We appreciate the diligent work by the University Senate in fostering a robust debate on the issue of military engagement and ROTC,” the statement read.
“As in any diverse, open community there will always be a range of strongly held opinions on such important issues. But as President Bollinger stated after last December’s Congressional vote, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell offers an historic opportunity for universities to reconsider their own policies as well. As planned, we look forward to sharing the Senate resolution with the Council of Deans and seeking an official conclusion on this matter by the end of the semester.”
School of General Studies student senator Jose Robledo, a military veteran and ROTC cadet, said he does not expect the Department of Defense to propose an ROTC program at Columbia in the immediate future.
“They’re still strapped for money. Their budget is basically constrained, just as our budget is constrained,” Robledo said. “Until the economic situation improves, there will be no outreach as far as ROTC is concerned.”
Regardless, for senator and astronomy professor Jim Applegate, a longtime ROTC supporter and a member of the task force which gathered campus opinions on ROTC, the decision was exactly what he and other ROTC supporters wanted.
“We authorized him [Bollinger] to negotiate on our behalf,” Applegate said. “That is what we intended to do.”
THE FINAL DEBATE
Columbia has spent the last three months debating ROTC’s return. The senate’s Task Force on Military Engagement hosted three town hall meetings on the subject, and there have been a number of other forums held to debate it, some for students and some for faculty.
The senate began debating the issue at its March 4 full body meeting, and senate committees spent the last few weeks discussing the resolution. But this was the first full senate meeting devoted to ROTC.
Film professor Bette Gordon started off the meeting with one of two opening speeches opposing ROTC. She argued that “the symbolic presence” of uniformed officers would be detrimental to Columbia.
“For many students, and particularly those from countries where the military, whether American or not, is associated with the destruction of civil life, the presence would be inhibiting, if not traumatizing,” Gordon said.
Senator Ron Mazor, CC ’09, Law ’12, who chaired the senate’s ROTC task force, voted for the resolution. He said after the meeting that he had made up his mind within the past week.
Mazor said after the vote that while many of his friends are opposed “to the whole notion of ROTC,” he disagreed with the argument that Columbia and the military are incompatible.
“I never really understood the arguments … that we as a university could not look beyond a uniform or someone’s personal choices when it comes to our ability to tolerate them or incorporate them,” he said.
Some senators argued that they should not yet pass the resolution, because even though Congress repealed DADT in December, the repeal has not yet been implemented. The President, the secretary of defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff must certify that the repeal will not harm military readiness before it becomes official.
At the Friday meeting, there was a late push to add an amendment stating that the resolution would not take effect until the DADT repeal is official, but Bollinger quelled senators’ concerns by assuring them that he would not bring an ROTC program to Columbia until that point.
Some said they opposed ROTC because even after the DADT repeal is implemented, the military will continue to bar transgendered individuals from enlisting. Columbia’s nondiscrimination policy protects students against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression.
Tan, who gave one of two opening speeches arguing for ROTC, made the point that while “discrimination against our colleagues who identify as transgender is an invidious and loathsome thing,” Columbia’s nondiscrimination policy also states that “Nothing in this policy shall abridge … the University’s educational mission.”
“And for that reason we have Barnard College, which discriminates on the basis of gender, the College of Physicians and Surgeons, which discriminates on the basis of creed against committed euthanasiasts, and our football team … which discriminates against individuals with medical and physical challenges,” Tan said, drawing some laughs.
Senator and Barnard women’s studies professor Rebecca Jordan-Young responded to Tan’s remarks during the meeting, saying that his condemnation of discrimination against transgendered individuals was “undermined by the sarcasm in several other aspects of the comments.”
Jordan-Young argued that Tan’s examples of discrimination “actually reveal a very serious lack of understanding of the very phenomenon of discrimination.”
“Barnard College has a very strong long history of existence that has to do with systematic exclusions of women from higher education and continuing exclusions of women from lots of public domains,” Jordan-Young said. “Likewise, transgendered people continue to be systematically, programmatically, legally excluded in many ways.”
ROTC opponent Avi Edelman, CC ’11 and the president of Everyone Allied Against Homophobia, said he was disappointed that the resolution passed, as he believes it directly violates Columbia’s nondiscrimination policy.
“I can’t say that I’m surprised,” Edelman said. “But you know, even expecting such a slap in the face to the transgendered community doesn’t make the slap hurt any less.”
Edelman added that while the ROTC debate has probably increased awareness of discrimination against transgendered students, Columbia is still ignoring the importance of its nondiscrimination policy.
“This isn’t an intellectual academic exercise … we’re talking about the lives of students of our campus,” Edelman said. “And we’re talking about bringing back a program that says, ‘I do not respect who you are.’”
Mazor said he has “no opinion either way” on whether or not a Columbia ROTC program would constitute discrimination. But he noted that in making his decision on how to vote, he had to balance nondiscrimination against the benefits of an ROTC program.
“My conclusion was that having ROTC on campus did not change our ability to be a tolerant university,” he said.
While the senate ultimately voted by a nearly 3-1 margin in support of ROTC, it took the body almost two hours of debate and procedural wrangling to reach a vote.
Some senators opposed to ROTC attempted to derail the resolution’s passage. A motion to table the resolution until the senate’s April 29 full body meeting was defeated, as was a motion sponsored by senator and philosophy professor Lydia Goehr, which would have changed the resolution to say only that Columbia would continue to discuss a relationship with ROTC.
“I would like to have seen the resolution have more neutral language with regards to the discussion that is going to take place … regarding relationships with ROTC and Columbia,” Goehr said after the meeting.
Other motions were more successful. The senate unanimously agreed to remove three clauses from the resolution, leaving only the clause supporting ROTC.
One of the removed clauses stated that “questions of academic credit, faculty appointments, academic governance, and space allocation” would remain under Columbia’s control should an ROTC program return. Those preconditions to an ROTC return have been university policy since 1969.
The second removed clause had specified that new relationships formed with the military as a result of the resolution would be subject to “periodic review” by the senate. The senate has the authority to revisit any measure it passes.
The final removed clause stated that “it is in the interest of Columbia University to continue to constructively engage with the Armed Forces of the United States and to educate future military leaders.”
When Bollinger eventually called for a vote on the finalized resolution, some senators objected, saying the discussion should continue. Bollinger insisted that it was time to make a decision, eschewing the two-thirds vote usually required to end debate.
Applegate said the senate meeting Friday “got a little drowned in parliamentary maneuvering,” but was otherwise a civil debate.
“This is not a terribly complicated issue. We got to the core of it and we made our decision,” Applegate said after the vote. “Everything worked. This is the way it’s supposed to work. It’s not always neat, it’s not always easy, but it worked.”