For four decades, Columbia was known for not allowing a Reserve Officers' Training Corps program on campus. That changed in May 2011, when Columbia officially agreed to recognize a Naval ROTC program.
ROTC had not been recognized by Columbia since 1969, when protests over the Vietnam War led to the dissolution of the University's long-standing Naval ROTC program. But over the years, on-campus opposition to the military softened, and by 2008, 49 percent of undergraduates said they supported the return of ROTC.
Most of the opposition in 2008 centered around the military's “don't ask, don't tell” policy, which prohibited gay soldiers from serving openly. When Congress repealed DADT in December 2010, the University Senate decided to revisit the debate, setting up a task force to study the issue and host town hall-style discussions.
While most students seemed to support ROTC's return—a survey of five Columbia schools found 60 percent of respondents supportive and 33 percent not supportive—there was a vocal opposition movement. Some ROTC opponents argued that the program's return would amount to a militarization of Columbia's campus, and others made the case that ROTC would violate the University's nondiscrimination policy, because the military continues to bar transgender individuals from enlisting.
During a tense moment at the second town hall, General Studies student Anthony Maschek, who was awarded a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq, was heckled after saying, “Other parts of the world are plotting to kill you right now when you go to bed. It's not a joke these people, seriously, are trying to kill you. They hate America, they hate you.” Many students applauded Maschek, but several booed or shouted “racist,” leading to media coverage portraying Columbia as unfriendly toward veterans.
Ultimately, the University Senate voted 51-17 to authorize Bollinger to negotiate ROTC's return to Columbia, and within a month, Bollinger had an agreement in place with the Navy. He officially signed the agreement with Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus atop the flight deck of the USS Iwo Jima.
For editorial comment, see “Why I signed” by Mark Lilla from March 1, 2011.