Opinion | Op-eds

An open letter to President Bollinger

Dear President Bollinger,

On April 1, the Senate voted to authorize you to commence negotiations that could change ROTC’s status at Columbia. It did so after you referred to a changed historical context in which Columbia could reconsider its “engagement” with the U.S. military. However, you did not specify the nature of this change.

Does change refer to globalization, in which context Columbia has established several global centers? If so, does a more elaborate ROTC presence on campus make Columbia a more or less attractive partner to foreign institutions and individuals that share a commitment to democracy? We often refer to other countries where the military is present in civilian institutions as in need of de-militarization.

Does change refer to the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”? In truth, the act remains in force, and the form of response to the investigative report concerning the presence of gays and lesbians in the military has not been determined. Moreover, discrimination against gays and lesbians—as well as transgender and other individuals—in the military is not limited to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Does change mean that women are no longer discriminated against in the military, and at Columbia? In fact, women are not eligible for numerous combat positions in the U.S. military. This means that, despite being vulnerable to injury and death, women often do not get the same combat pay as their male co-combatants. More importantly: A recent study indicates that almost one-third of all women in the U.S. military report being raped, and 71 percent of military women receiving treatment for PTSD report being the victims of rape or sexual assault. Yet, when Mr. Tao Tan spoke as the official student representative in favor of ROTC’s changed status, he tried to deflect the issue by referring to Barnard as a discriminatory institution. Although Columbia finally admitted women to its College in 1983, 68 percent of Senators are men, and 71 percent of attendees of the April 1 meeting were men. These numbers tell us that gender inequality has not changed and should not therefore be dismissed.

Does change refer to the fact that our “peer institutions” are enhancing their arrangements with ROTC? Must we do anything simply because others do it? This logic has led many people to commit acts that they later regretted.

Does change refer to the fact that the U.S. armed forces now contract out many of the staffing and curricular functions of ROTC to private, for-profit corporations (such as MPRI and COMTek, Inc.) and that the U.S. government no longer always enforces the law requiring ROTC instructional staff to have the academic rank of professor? Will we act on the basis of non-enforcement of laws in other areas? Of course, the privatization of military functions in a time when there is no conscription does indeed constitute a change. Yet, there was no public discussion of these issues by the Task Force on Military Engagement.

Does change mean that course credit may no longer be required by ROTC as a condition of its program operations at any given university? Questions of curriculum are not reducible to the matter of credit; a course preparatory to human destruction does not change when it is not granted credit.

Does change refer to the fact that the 2010-2011 Task Force recommended a change departing from a 40-year precedent? What is the status of these recommendations? In question is the neutrality of the Task Force. Professor James Applegate and Mr. Tao Tan jointly appointed the supposedly impartial Task Force members but repeatedly spoke in favor of ROTC’s transformed status, including at the plenary meeting of April 1. The Task Force also failed to publicly present the content of the March 30 Faculty Caucus Meeting and the dissent-filled special March 30 meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the plenary. These facts undermine the status of the Task Force reports and all the deliberations emanating therefrom. If this lack of impartiality and procedural fairness is a change in Senate practice, it is not positive.

Columbia students already enjoy the option of ROTC, by virtue of cross-town arrangements—a common structure throughout New York State. The change that appears on the horizon for ROTC is therefore a symbolic one, in which the intensified presence of ROTC on campus signifies the University’s embrace of the military. What can this mean at a time when most Americans (including many veterans), and most people in the world, oppose the U.S. military’s current engagements?

Hopefully, what has not changed is Columbia’s commitment to free, independent, and critical thought. Hopefully, what has not changed is Columbia’s capacity to differentiate between a curriculum that promotes knowledge and critical judgment and one that promotes the destruction of human life as a solution to political problems.

It may be too much to hope for an end to war, but it is not impossible to hope that Columbia University would refuse to participate in its valorization, or the misrepresentation of preparation for war as a mere course of study like any other. War is not like anything else. Our many students who come from war-ravaged lands know this. Many had indeed hoped for change when they applied to Columbia. The University has the opportunity to model a different response to crisis than that of war. Why can this not be the change that constitutes Columbia University’s contribution to globalization?

The author is a professor in the department of anthropology.

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