THE BLOG
05/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ivies and the Military -- Toward Reconciliation (Harvard Administration Blows an Opportunity)

About 100 of us just gathered at Harvard Divinity School for a conference called "Ivies and the Military -- Toward Reconciliation." (April 3-4) Harvard Divinity School is to be commended for the vision (and courage) needed to sponsor this historic first. The student organizers wanted to begin a national conversation within our elite educational institutions' about why top schools are discouraging their privileged students from considering military service. For a list of speakers and topics: http://hopetending.org/speakers.htm. (I do not speak for either the organizers or the other participants, though many of us were of like mind).

It's fitting that this event was held at a divinity school. The issue of who serves and who does not is about fairness, class issues and ethics; in other words fundamental spiritual values. If the Ivy League contributed a proportionate number of their students to the military -- in the relevant 18 to 29 year-old demographic -- comparable to the rest of the country, about five percent of Ivy students would volunteer. Thirty years plus into the all-volunteer era and scarcely a fraction of one percent of Ivy students volunteer. (Before Vietnam about half of all male Ivy graduates served before or after college. Some were drafted but most volunteered.) Today non-ivy schools contribute far more students (proportionately) than the Ivies. The Ivies are also notorious for having banned ROTC on their campuses.

The issue of Ivy indifference to the military was highlighted by who did not participate at our conference. Though they had been repeatedly invited by both faculty and students no one from the Harvard admissions office, the provost of Harvard's office or the president of Harvard (or even a representative from her office) chose to attend.

The Harvard administration had an historic opportunity to enter into this vital discussion and they ignored it. In a time of war when their fellow Americans are dying, no one from the Harvard president's office would even cross the street to dialogue with top military educators and strategists or even pay their respects to the military visitors on campus.

The military participated on a high level, as opposed to the Harvard administration. We had generals, admirals, and top administrators present. It was a clear illustration of how many members of the academy have washed their hands of concerns for our national security, let alone respect for our men and women, as if somehow they are living in their own country, or even on another planet. It was not always so, as the memorial wall at Harvard to the many fallen Harvard hero alumni attests.

I was included as one of the 24 panelists because my son John and I published a book called Keeping Faith--A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps. (2002) My part of our book explores how I was shocked by my youngest son unexpectedly joining the Marines right out of a swanky private (and progressive) high school. (My older children went to NYU and Georgetown.) When John joined in 1999 and then after 9/11 went to war in Afghanistan, I changed my snobbish anti-military attitude as I began to understand the military better and met and got to know so many impressive military people--my son being one of them!

My son's service connected our family to our country -- and all classes and races of Americans -- in a way I'd never imagined possible. Following an appearance on Oprah, our book became a best seller and, as a result, I found myself in the role of an informal spokesman for the military family. I started corresponding with thousands of military family members as well as writing a series of opinion articles for the Washington Post on the alienation of the military family from the rest of America.

We panelists at the conference were progressives, conservatives and moderates, male and female, black and white, yet we agreed that: it is past time for our elite universities to reconsider their sometime anti-military bias that is most clearly expressed in their continuing (often bitter) opposition to restoring ROTC to campus.

It seems to me that the military is also at fault for the continuing military/Ivy divide. The military has more or less given up on the Ivies because restoring Ivy ROTC programs would be expensive, not to mention the aggravation suffered by recruiters (and those few students who do volunteer) when pilloried by self-righteous faculty who consider military service beneath their students. It also seems to me that the real issue with today's Obama-era Ivy opposition to service is no longer only political, but more often sheer elitism and snobbery of -- the very kind of crass myopia that I suffered from before my son joined and I "converted." (There is -- of course -- a place for pacifism in this country, but here we are discussing attitudes of people who are not pacifists, but just against their own "kind" serving.)

The consensus of our diverse panel was that neither the military nor the Ivies have the luxury of continuing to ignore - let alone disdain -- each other. Our military desperately needs highly educated leaders in this complex interconnected world, and our top schools desperately need an infusion of selfless values.

Kathy Roth Douquet (Clinton White House appointee) spoke on the topic of her book (co-authored with me) AWOL--The Unexcused Absence From Military Service of America's Upper Classes and How it Hurts Our Country. Alan Silver (Columbia University) spoke on perspectives on the ROTC and Ivy League history, pointing out that the divorce between the Ivy League and ROTC began in the fever pitch sixties and seventies during the Vietnam War. Rev. Beth Miller (Unitarian Universalist Association) spoke on how there is a new awareness in progressive denominations of the need to provide more military chaplains.

Rear Admiral Alan Steinman (USCG-Retired) gave a talk on the negative impact of the Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell congressional policy. Several top military educators detailed the changing role military leaders' face while navigating the complex international challenges confronting our country.

Several attendees and panel members speculated that perhaps the reason that the president of Harvard (and/or her representatives) declined to attend is because Harvard, Columbia et al don't want to be reminded of the fact that while tens of thousands of bright young Americans have been volunteering the Ivies have produced a non-serving generation of bankers, hedge fund managers etc. who are the rapacious -- and incredibly short-sighted -- predators who destroyed our economy.

That point has been put forth by others, vis-a-vis the Ivies' dire "contribution" to our economy. Kevin Hassett (Director of Economic Policy Studies and a Senior Fellow at AEI) explored the relationship between the rise of Ivy graduates on Wall Street and our economic decline. In "How Ivy League Narcissists Killed Wall Street" (Providence Journal, Feb 22, 09.)

When Wall Street was run by people randomly selected from the population, it was able to survive everything. After the best and brightest took over, it died the first time that real-estate prices dropped 20 percent. Are the two facts related? In other words, did Harvard kill Wall Street? The suspect certainly had the opportunity. If you walked into any major Wall Street firm a year ago and randomly selected an employee, chances are that person would either be from an Ivy League school... or have a Masters in Business Administration, or both... Wall Street didn't die in spite of being run by our best and brightest. It died because of that fact.

Why do the Ivies need the military? Because clever but amoral strivers, who are only all about "me," are a menace to the larger community. The lesson the Ivy League teaches has become: I am the most important person in any room. The lesson the United States military teaches is: the person standing next to me is more important than I am.

We are winding up W's misbegotten Iraq war. We are - at last! -- concentrating on prosecuting a just war in Afghanistan, with Guantánamo Bay prison closing, with the vile Bush/Cheney policy of torturing prisoners a thing of the past. Our progressive black president is asking all Americans to step up and serve -- be that in the Peace Corps, Teach for America and in the United States Military. And we all know that the gays in the military policy will change.

In this context what will be the Ivy League's post-Bush excuse be for continuing to keep ROTC off-campus and the military out of sight and out of mind, especially after President Obama and Congress change the policy on gays in the military?

The general consensus of our panel members was that President Obama must take the lead in healing the Ivy/military divide. In conclusion let me say I think that:

-- President Obama should reverse the Bush "doctrine" of telling most America to go shopping (or to Wall Street!) while a few go to war.

-- President Obama should ask Congress to allow openly gay men and women to serve with all the same rights as heterosexuals.

-- President Obama should keep asking the class of Americans -- most like himself and First Lady Michelle Obama -- the fortunate Ivy League-educated few -- to volunteer for military service (something "go shopping" Bush never did).

-- President Obama should not just ask, but demand that all our top schools restore ROTC now. (At Columbia during the 08 campaign he asked the school to reverse its ROTC ban. They have ignored his request. Columbia's president vehemently opposes it.)

-- President Obama needs to express his philosophical view of the proper use of force, a subject that makes many in the academy queasy. In a potential "Nixon-goes-to-China" moment it is time that our progressive president lay to rest the canard that not serving is somehow (conveniently) more "moral" than serving one's country.

-- President Obama needs to push national service (military and non-military) options constantly.

It is time for public outrage to be directed at the elitist enclaves of privilege that have (using a variety of excuses) adopted a military service-aversion akin to the late Leona Helmsley's infamous aversion to paying taxes. The Ivies' maxim seems to be; military service is for the little people.

If presidential bully pulpit persuasion doesn't work, try the law. If Congress can threaten a 90 percent tax on undeserved AIG executive bonuses, it can also threaten the Iveys' billions of dollars of endowments and all government funded research programs, if the Ivies continue to put roadblocks in the way of military recruiters.

I know denizens of the Ivies can change: I did. And this is no a left/right let alone Republican/Democrat matter. I am of the Obama moderate left and a hearty supporter of our men and women in uniform. Obama is a progressive calling for service, including for military service.

A level military service playing field would be good for the country and even better for the privileged few who will be our next generation of leaders. Our future leaders will lead more effectively, if they first work side-by-side with Americans from all walks of life for a cause greater than themselves.

Military service entails sacrifice, but it is also one of the best opportunities most young privileged Americans (and their families!) will have for the sort of character development -- and deep connection to all classes and cultures in our country -- that leads to citizens working to build up our country, rather than only striving to profit from it.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer and co-author (with John Schaeffer) of, Keeping Faith-A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps.