Over the last few years, some Ivy League universities have begun welcoming R.O.T.C. to campus for the first time in over four decades, ending a standoff that began in protest of the Vietnam War and was later attributed to the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy. By holding out until that discriminatory law was repealed, Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Brown appeared to be patient and principled objectors, reinforcing the idea of the university as a progressive voice for equality.
But a closer look sheds different light on this dissention. We tend to associate meaningful protests with some sort of sacrifice, but the universities suffered little (while the military, which knows sacrifice, lost its chance at recruiting some of the country's top students). The schools never lost federal funding, despite threats. Their reputation remained stellar, as did the metrics they care most about--acceptance rates reached record lows, and endowment funds achieved record highs.
All of this raises the question of whether the opposition to military recruitment was authentic, or simply convenient. Would the country's elite universities have taken a stand, and will they again, if more were at stake?
One look at their relationship with an industry widely considered to have defrauded taxpayers of $700 billion would suggest that the answer is a definitive "No." The alliance between Wall Street and the country's most prestigious universities says much about a susceptibility to money and power that is increasingly defining our higher education system.
Given their firm objection to Don't Ask Don't Tell, it's difficult to imagine the same elite, heavily liberal-leaning universities warmly welcoming the oil industry in the wake of the BP oil spill, or the firearm industry in the aftermath of a mass shooting. It seems even more implausible that those hypothetical recruiters would attract hordes of students to their lavish events, partner with faculty, and run a campaign so successful that the industry would win over more graduates than any other.
This, however, is the story when it comes to Wall Street. Campuses have turned a blind eye to the abuses of an industry that precipitated an economic collapse, accepted a taxpayer bailout, and then doled out $18.4 billion in bonuses--the sixth-highest tally on record--as Americans lost jobs and homes. Instead of speaking or acting against this, universities continued opening their doors to bankers, who overrun campus throughout the school year and spare no expense to achieve face-time with as many students as possible, beginning with the freshmen.
In 2010 I graduated from Duke University, a school that never blocked R.O.T.C. but whose relationship with Wall Street is very similar to the schools that did. In 2012, Duke's graduates, like those of Harvard and Columbia, were more likely to accept a job in finance than anywhere else.
The difference in the approaches to Wall Street and R.O.T.C. recruitment can potentially be explained by taking a glance at these schools' donor rolls. Doing so reveals a list that reads like a who's who of Wall Street: Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein (Harvard), former Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack (Duke), former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain (Yale), private equity giant Henry Kravis (Columbia), and the list goes on and on of financiers who have given millions to their alma maters.
Earning dibs on the country's best and brightest doesn't come cheap, and as long as the money keeps pouring in from these donors, it's unlikely a university would do anything to stand in their way.
Five years after the economic collapse, we are still waiting for someone to hold Wall Street accountable, and some colleges are in a position to make an impact by cutting off the banks' talent supply. This move may not drastically affect the way the industry conducts itself, but that reasoning hasn't stopped universities in the past. It is only when taking a stand is both difficult and costly that our institutions of higher learning can prove they are as opposed to unjust and unwarranted behavior as they like for us to believe.
Follow Laura Newland on Twitter: www.twitter.com/laurajnewland