Return of ROTC to Columbia University? An Issue Much Larger Than 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

03/09/2011 03:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Harvard University announced last week that it would reinstate its on-campus ROTC program, after barring the military training program from campus for 41 years. On March 4th, Columbia University's Senate will begin deliberations on whether Columbia should follow suit. (Columbia students who wish to enroll in ROTC can do so through Fordham's program, and receive full financial and other benefits.)

The Senate's Task Force on Military Engagement has held a series of hearings on the issue, soliciting input from a range of stake-holders. They have set up a useful and informative website containing information about the history of ROTC at Columbia as well as materials related to recent efforts to revisit the policy.

Faculty have submitted in-person testimony and written positions on the issue. Both the Law and Business School Deans have issued statements enthusiastically supporting the return of ROTC to Columbia (the Law School Dean expresses support for the return of ROTC to Columbia in light of the value he sees in having students in the classroom who have served in the military, thereby blurring the distinction between ROTC and a GI bill -- the latter I would join the Dean in supporting).

This is the letter I sent to the Task Force on Military Engagement this week, urging the Columbia Community to see this issue as involving more than the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell":

To The Task Force and the Columbia Community:

I write to express my strong objections to the reinstatement of ROTC at Columbia University. While I applaud Congress, President Obama, and the Department of Defense's recent efforts to undertake the repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, the specter of this discriminatory policy's repeal does not, alone, justify the suspension of Columbia's objections to the on-campus integration of civilian and military education. The University resolved in 1969 to terminate its campus-based relationship with ROTC for reasons independent of the military's overt policy of sexual orientation-based discrimination. The concerns about an academic relationship with the military raised 42 years ago have not been eliminated. Indeed, as I will explain below, they are compounded by additional grounds for rejecting the return of ROTC to the Morningside Heights campus.

The ideal of the civilian university is premised upon inquiry and critical analysis that values, for its own sake, a kind of curiosity that can be anarchic, disorderly, chaotic, blasphemous, anti-authoritarian and even treasonous. Military training, on the other hand, privileges linear, rational, disciplined, authority-respecting and strategic modes of reasoning. In theory, a university could accommodate both of these modes of learning, thinking and judgment, but in practice I worry about what it means to diversify the academic environment through a military presence. What concerns me about re-instituting an official pedagogical relationship to the military through ROTC is the degree to which universities such as Columbia remain one of the last domains of civil society that is not influenced directly by and conscripted into the investments and values of the military industrial complex, to borrow a term from one of Columbia University's most illustrious past-Presidents Dwight Eisenhower. This is an important value for its own sake and justifies maintaining Columbia's now long-standing commitment to the values of a civilian education.

In conversation about these issues with other colleagues at the Law School, some have argued in support of the reinstatement of ROTC on the ground that modern military training is more supple and sophisticated than how it is often portrayed by its critics. "The relationship between the chain of command and an individual officer's own judgment is a topic of deep study and reflection among military scholars and at military education institutions like West Point," one member of the law faculty put it to me. While it may be true that in principle the military chain of command is more nimble and reflective than the picture painted by some of the opponents to ROTC, these advancements in military training and judgment are just that, principles or ideals. In practice, the realization of this ideal for, among others, gay people and women in the armed forces has been a profound disappointment. The frequency of homophobic and gender-based violence against women and men in the armed services has not decreased as a consequence of the purported modernization of the command structure. Instead, the Pentagon's own studies documented a double-digit increase in reported sexual assault last year. Rather than rendering the chain of command more responsive to these incidents of violence, the state of the art officer corps training seems to result in a structure that is increasingly less sensitive or responsive to complaints of sexual violence.

Just last week a federal court action was filed in Virginia against the Department of Defense and Secretary Robert Gates alleging numerous, ongoing incidents of sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual violence against women and men in the military. One of the plaintiffs stated: "The policies that are put in place are extremely ineffectual. There was severe maltreatment in these cases, and there was no accountability whatsoever. And soldiers in general who make any type of complaint in the military are subject to retaliation and have no means of defending themselves." The suit claims that the plaintiffs pursued proper channels within the chain of command to address documented incidents of sexual violence, including rape. The complainants were punished for doing so, and the alleged perpetrators were protected by the command structure. These actions took place after the Department of Defense failed to implement congressionally mandated procedures for preventing and addressing sexual harassment and violence.

Similar incidents of violence against members of the armed forces who were thought to be gay or lesbian have received equally negligent, if not intentionally hostile, response from the chain of military command for years.

With or without DADT, the military and its attendant culture of violence has been a brutal "employer" for women and gay people, as have the service academies been a brutal "place of learning" according to their own internal studies. Any other institution that routinely acquiesced in, if not condoned, such sexual violence and harassment by peers, supervisors, and educators would be barred from recruiting and training our students on campus - or at least I would hope so.

Beyond my doubts about the degree to which military training and its emphasis on the chain of command actually encourages the exercise of good, critical judgment, I have larger reservations about the increased militarization of the University through the full presence of ROTC on campus. The present conversation about allowing ROTC back on campus is not simply for me a question of gay rights, it involves a much older and deeper concern about the relationship of the military to the civilian university that has a particular history at Columbia. Now, as a generation ago, I would object to the conferral of Columbia University credit for ROTC courses taught by instructors who have not received an academic appointment. Now, as a generation ago, I would object to the furnishing of space and related facilities to the military for the administration of the ROTC program. Now, as a generation ago, I would object to the integration of military training and values into the fabric of civilian teaching, learning and research at Columbia.


Katherine M. Franke
Professor of Law
Director, Center for Gender & Sexuality Law
Columbia Law School

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