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ROTC Campus Controversy

Mar 11, 2011

The Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) is a vital program for preparing the next generation of military leaders. But over its decades-long history on campuses, the ROTC has also been a lightning rod for controversy at many colleges and universities.

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By Douglas Fehlen

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An Oft-Troubled Relationship

The Reserve Officers' Training Corps is a campus-based program that provides students with training in leadership, problem solving and ethics. Most students who join the ROTC are interested in becoming commissioned officers in the Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine Corps. Responsible for producing roughly four out of ten active duty officers (excluding the Coast Guard), the program is a key pipeline for military talent.

The ROTC and higher ed institutions have not, however, always enjoyed a simpatico relationship. In fact, the very existence of military programs on campus has for decades been a point of contention at many schools. In addition, specific attributes of ROTC programs and the U.S. Armed Forces have fueled campus controversies.

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Protest and Banishment

During the Vietnam War, ROTC programs were popular targets of frustration among students who objected to the human and financial toll of the conflict. Some of these young people also faced possible draft into the service and joined demonstrations against the ROTC. During this period, administrators at many colleges began to question whether having ROTC programs on campus was appropriate. Some elite institutions - including Harvard, Columbia and Stanford - even closed programs based on moral and academic grounds.

The ROTC has yet to return to many of these colleges and universities. More recently, institutions have pointed to the U.S. military's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy as a blockade to reinstating programs. Schools have stated that regulations banning gay, lesbian and bisexual service members from being open about their sexuality are in direct conflict with nondiscrimination policies in place at institutions. With the recent repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' many higher ed observers have suggested that it won't be long before ROTC programs are again found on virtually all college campuses.

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Harvard University

Outstanding Issues

While one significant barrier has seemingly been removed to ROTC's return to many campuses where they're currently absent, some significant issues remain. For example, the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' repeal does nothing to stop discrimination against individuals who are transgender. Universities that have substantiated bans on ROTC programs based on the military's discrimination policy would seemingly avoid reversing course without protections for all individuals.

Transgender discrimination is one of the issues at the forefront of Columbia University's discussions about whether to bring ROTC programs back to campus. Contentious military actions, such as the war in Iraq, have also caused many to question whether the military has a role to play on academic campuses. With a long history of ambivalence between elite institutions of higher ed and the U.S. Armed Forces, some suggest the road ahead for ROTC programs may remain somewhat bumpy.

Overall, though, relationships between higher ed institutions and the military do seem to be warming. In a landmark moment on March 4th, officials at Harvard University announced the return of the ROTC following four decades of banishment.

Learn more about ROTC history and its benefits for students.

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