Earlier this year, the University Senate voted to reinstate the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps back at Columbia after a 41-year ban. During the debate, the arguments that ensued over its reinstatement charged campus, with accusations that ROTC students were incompatible with the type of academics that we were trying to form at Columbia.
However, many people didn’t realize that for years, Columbia had already made agreements with both the Air Force and the Army to allow students to become officers. Nevertheless, with the support of students and faculty, Naval ROTC returned to campus this fall, accompanied by a new makeshift office in Lerner Hall.
Last Friday, during a University Senate Plenary, the task force assigned to oversee the transition reported that only five students were enrolled in Naval ROTC, bringing the total number of ROTC cadets to a whopping 12 (an additional 4 in the Army and 3 in the Air Force). For some, that may seem like a victory or an indication that interest just doesn’t exist here.
But such a reaction may be premature. There have undoubtedly been a few problems in the program’s implementation.
First, the senate task force, consisting of faculty members and students, refused to permit ROTC cadets to be a part of the task force due to a stated “conflict of interest.” As an ROTC cadet, it’s perplexing and frustrating to see the University consciously exclude those who have spent countless hours of extra time commuting and training in order to participate in the program. Who else would know the implications of such a program and its effect on athletics, students’ participation in extracurricular organizations, and the like?
When instituting a study abroad program or major, the University looks to its peer institutions for a framework and guidance on its implementation. It gathers all the information it can to ensure success. So why is it different for NROTC? The University should use all of its resources, including current cadets, to make informed and calculated decisions. For now, the program has been put in place with the caveat that students must travel to SUNY Maritime, which is located at least an hour away in the Bronx. Perhaps with the help of current ROTC cadets, the University could have provided a better solution to the current situation, but for now, we won’t know.
But it’s not too late to seek out our opinion. The NROTC program and the University Senate task force should invite Columbia cadets to learn about the complex problems that face a Columbia student enrolled in ROTC. The program is still in its infant stages and can allow for proper changes and reform to occur. If they continue to avoid current ROTC cadets, midshipmen (the term the NROTC uses in lieu of “cadets”) may experience problems that they might never have had to deal with in the first place.
Second, recruiting has been dismal at best. In the few weeks of school, I have yet to see a naval officer, let alone an NROTC midshipman. Is the administration making sure that students have access to these programs? The military is definitely not for everyone and there is not complete support from the greater community, but the University should foster the opportunity for students who are interested. In order to do so, Columbia should allow NROTC to attend the career fair, activities day, and a number of other events on campus that would allow students to be exposed to different options.
After all, the military wants Columbia students because of the diverse group of people that we are exposed to and the quality of education we receive. On a daily basis, we may speak with students from a dozen different countries, from a dozen different backgrounds, and with them, encounter a dozen different opinions. The military believes that such a cosmopolitan experience will help form culturally sensitive officers prepared for the wide array of situations that they will have to face.
Admissions, consequently, should also begin highlighting the program for prospective students on campus. Although data has never been collected by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, we surely lose a handful of students because there isn’t ROTC on campus. Individuals with full scholarships choose to attend our peer institutions, such as Harvard, Princeton, and MIT, who sponsor closer and better-integrated programs. This is a loss for both potential students, who are missing out on a Columbia education and the New York City dynamic, and for Columbia, which would not only generate income from these fully-paid tuitions, but also play a part in educating the future leaders of the military.
The debate, now, is not about whether an ROTC program should exist. Rather, if there is going to be an ROTC program, what can we do to ensure that it will flourish? ROTC already exists on campus, and the administration at all levels should be acting so that the program can be a success. A half-hearted implementation will only mean a half-hearted program, both of which are a disservice to the students and the University.
Ryan Cho is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science. He is president of the Multicultural Greek Council and a member of Lambda Phi Epsilon. He is a cadet in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Let’s Be Real runs alternate Wednesdays.
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