Repeal of Gay Ban Opens Door to ROTC Return at Top Schools

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Repeal of the military's ban on openly gay and lesbian service members may mean the return of Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs to several top private U.S. universities after being banned for decades.

ROTC, which prepares students to become military officers upon their graduation, had been a fixture on many of the nation's campuses until the late 1960s and early 1970s. But deep opposition to the Vietnam War and, later, to the "don't ask don't tell" policy spurred some schools to push the military out.

Now as President Obama signed a repeal of the policy into law Wednesday, at least four elite universities have begun high-level discussions and convened working groups to consider ROTC's return.

"I look forward to pursuing discussions with military officials and others to achieve Harvard's full and formal recognition of ROTC," said Harvard University president Drew Faust in a statement. "I am very pleased that more students will now have the opportunity to serve their country."

At Yale, where ROTC was expelled in 1969 after faculty voted to revoke credit for military courses, university president Richard Levin said the school will reach out to the Pentagon to determine if the military has interest in returning.

"Yale is eager to open discussions about expanding opportunities to students interested in military service, and we will be discussing this matter with the faculty of Yale college in the spring semester," he said in a statement.

A return to campus would make it easier for students interested in military service to pursue training while completing their studies. Currently at Yale and other schools without on-campus ROTC, students who want to participate have to travel to neighboring universities, which is often burdensome.

Allowing ROTC to operate on-campus would also facilitate integration the nation's top students into military leadership roles and potentially broaden connections between military decision-makers and other high-profile alumni from the elite schools, advocates say.

"The alternative is a civil-military divide, and you get situations like people who've trained in Ivy League institutions or places like Stanford who are represented in leadership of the country but who don't have friends in the military, or they don't know enough about the military to manage it properly, or just have discussions about military-related issues," said Michael Segal, founder and director of Advocates for ROTC, an umbrella group promoting the return of the military program to top colleges and universities.

ROTC Advocates Seek Program's Return

During a campaign visit to Columbia University in 2008, Obama called the absence of ROTC from U.S. college and university campuses wrong.

"The notion that young people here at Columbia, or anywhere, in any university, aren't offered the choice, the option of participating in military service, I think is a mistake," Obama said.

Eric Chen, a recent Columbia graduate and Army veteran, said the military and universities need to understand the mutual benefits of bringing ROTC back to all schools in the Ivy League.

"In an increasingly complex global security environment, America needs military leaders able to adapt on a full spectrum, which means officers who are creative critical thinkers and lifelong learners with the best possible academic foundation," he said. "Columbia already hosts innovative cross-cutting programs that rely upon the special reach and multi-dimensional resources of a global flagship university in a world city."

Columbia ousted the program in 1969 in protest of the Vietnam War. But with the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" the university has begun discussions to consider bringing it back.

"It effectively ends what has been a vexing problem for higher education, including at Columbia -- given our desire to be open to our military, but not wanting to violate our own core principle against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation," said Columbia University president Lee Bollinger in a statement. "We now have the opportunity for a new era in the relationship between universities and our military services."

An advisory committee plans to survey Columbia students and hold hearings on ROTC's return. The University senate would ultimately need to approve reinstatement of the program.

But some skeptics of the military program say keeping it off campus is about more than "don't ask don't tell" or anti-war sentiment.

"Don't ask don't tell was one of the concerns the faculty has had, but there are others," said Stanford University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin.

Faculty at Stanford and other schools have voiced concerns over academic integrity of the program and whether the schools should grant academic credit for military courses. Some have also questioned treatment of military instructors as members of the faculty. Federal law requires schools which offer ROTC on campus to treat the instructors to the equivalent of a professor.

Lapin said a committee of Stanford faculty is reviewing a possible return of ROTC and will offer its recommendations this spring. But she said the full faculty senate would need to vote to approve reinstatement of the program.

Other skeptics have questioned whether there would be enough student interest to merit the time and resources of bringing ROTC back.

Chen said the military and university administrators need to give students a chance.

"You first have to plant the seed in order to grow the tree," he said. "Building the cadet population at Columbia first requires ROTC on campus. Then, as Columbia ROTC is nurtured into a fully integrated member of the university, the cadet population will grow over time."