ROTC Cadets and Veterans raise the flag on Columbia's campus during Veterans Day
“I invite you to consider whether the right question may no longer be “How could we ever formally recognize ROTC on our campus,” but, instead, “How can we not welcome them back?””
—Columbia College Dean Michele Moody-Adams, October 2, 2010
Columbia ROTC was once a special institutional partnership that educated generations of Columbia students in the civil-military leadership tradition of alumnus and founding father Alexander Hamilton. The partnership was severed when ROTC was effectively barred from Columbia University in 1969. Since 2002, students, alumni, and faculty have organized to restore ROTC on the Columbia campus. The majority of responses to ROTC in the Columbia community have been positive, but Columbia’s acceptance of ROTC has been delayed by opposition to the “don’t ask don’t tell” law (DADT).
Columbia ROTC after DADT
“[The repeal of DADT] effectively ends what has been a vexing problem for higher education, including at Columbia — given our desire to be open to our military.”
—Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, December 18, 2010
On December 18, 2010, Congress repealed DADT. On the same day, Columbia President Lee Bollinger declared that the end of DADT is “the opportunity for a new era in the relationship between universities and our military services.” On December 20th, the Student Affairs Committee of the Columbia University Senate, the governing body that must decide whether the university will elect to restore ROTC, announced the formation of the “Task Force on Military Engagement.” The University Senate, which last considered ROTC in 2005, will take up the ROTC issue in the Spring 2011 session.
The repeal of DADT makes all the difference in Columbia welcoming ROTC. Much like the November 2010 Yale student survey on ROTC, a majority of Columbians have expressed support for ROTC on campus but not if having ROTC meant importing DADT. The repeal of DADT means a majority of Columbians now favor having ROTC on campus, period.
For Columbia officials, the question after DADT is whether an ROTC program fulfills the civic responsibility of an American flagship institution and the University’s mission to furnish “a distinctive and distinguished learning environment for undergraduates and graduate students in many scholarly and professional fields.”
Military officials currently judge ROTC programs using an accounting standard, i.e., whether an acceptable number of second lieutenants are produced at an acceptable cost, with some consideration for factors such as the host school’s comity with the military, racial diversity, and regional coverage. The effect of current ROTC metrics has been to view the suppressed cadet numbers, long estrangement, and other suspected challenges at Columbia as drawbacks, whereas Columbia’s preeminent institutional strengths have not been judged as countervailing advantages.
Since the repeal of DADT, skeptics have challenged the practicality of an ROTC program at Columbia from the military’s perspective. However, the issue is not whether the military is able to add an ROTC program at Columbia; since the Columbia ROTC movement was organized in 2002, ROTC programs have been granted to other host schools. The issue is whether university and military officials will determine that a new Columbia ROTC partnership is feasible and worth the cost.
If the evaluation of Columbia as an ROTC host school is limited to the military’s current accounting standard, then Columbia will continue to be doubted as a candidate to host ROTC. Realizing ROTC at Columbia depends on university, government, and military leaders who can see beyond current ROTC metrics and envision the benefits of an institutional partnership that invests Columbia’s strengths in the military and vice-versa.
An ROTC+ vision for Columbia
“Future Army forces require lifelong learners who are creative and critical thinkers with highly refined problem solving skills and the ability to process and transform data and information rapidly and accurately into usable knowledge, across a wide range of subjects, to develop strategic thinkers capable of applying operational art to the strategic requirements of national policy.”
—The United States Army Operating Concept 2016-2028
“A healthy force must maintain high standards. Recent analyses emphasize the need for officers who are even more agile, flexible, educated, skilled, and professional.”
—The Final Report of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel
Leaders in all fields often stress that a vision is important, but 90% of the effort is in implementation. Simply adding ROTC to Columbia would fill an important gap at Columbia, but our goal goes beyond simply adding an ROTC program. We envision Columbia ROTC as the leading, state-of-the-art ROTC program in the nation. Much depends on the degree to which the university, the military, and the alumni are willing to implement an ROTC+ vision at Columbia.
The military’s evolving 21st Century mission aligns the military with Columbia’s global outlook and raises the potential of a Columbia ROTC+ with course offerings that are a plus both to the university and the military. In an increasingly complex global security environment, America needs military leaders able to adapt on a full spectrum, which means officers who are “lifelong learners” and “creative and critical thinkers” with the best possible academic foundation. Columbia University’s gifted students and combination of top-tier academic and New York City resources offer ROTC an ideal setting for innovative programs to attract qualified young men and women, recruit personnel with specialized skills, and prepare officers for a full range of complex missions with enhanced pre-accession training. Columbia already hosts innovative crosscutting programs that rely upon the special reach and multi-dimensional resources of a flagship university in a world city – Columbia ROTC+ would be a rare opportunity to rise to the needs of the nation with an evolutionary officer program that draws upon everything Columbia University in New York City has to offer.
Columbia ROTC+ would take advantage of Columbia’s large diverse pool of top-quality undergraduate and graduate students, a world-class research and learning environment that already trains students in a wide range of scholarly and professional fields, and the unique resources of a world capital. Columbia has top language, anthropology, and civil engineering programs that should immediately interest the Army and Marines, as well as excellent engineering and science programs that should attract the Air Force and Navy.
Navy ROTC is a promising match for Columbia. Columbia owns strong historical ties to Naval officer training. An NROTC program at Columbia would provide the Navy with much-needed access to New York City. NROTC favors strong engineering programs and Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) is one of the best in the world. For New York City, a home for NROTC at Columbia would advance Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative to make the city an “applied science and engineering hub.”
ROTC at Columbia would help solve the military’s absence of ROTC within Manhattan — which has poor access to ROTC despite having the highest concentration of college students in the country — and affirm to Columbia students their nation-building responsibilities in both military and civilian life. The return of ROTC to Columbia University, the flagship academic institution in New York City, would have a positive wider cultural and public relations impact on the military and the university.
Any new ROTC program at Columbia would join a distinguished military heritage and find a fraternal community ready to support the program. Columbia’s military tradition dates back to the students who joined the fight for a new American nation. Indeed, the standard bearer for Columbia officership is founding father Alexander Hamilton and his lifetime of visionary leadership in and out of uniform. The Hamilton Society, the student group for ROTC students and Marine officer candidates founded in 2002, has consciously sought to revive General Hamilton’s Columbia military lineage. Columbia enjoys an active and growing population of over 300 student-veterans, the largest by far in the Ivy League, as well as numerous active-duty officers in the graduate programs. Alumni group Columbia Alliance for ROTC has the express purpose of promoting and supporting ROTC at Columbia. Alumni have served in all the military branches, though none more than the Navy, where Columbia Naval officers once rivaled Annapolis’s output.
Beyond Columbia’s military community, ROTC would find a supportive environment on campus. Since 2005, University leaders have consistently cited DADT as the only significant obstacle to the university welcoming ROTC, and DADT is no longer relevant. The ROTC movement has grown within Columbia from students, alumni, and professors supporting the military on campus. The steady trend on campus has been to support the military, as expressed by University leaders such as Trustees chairman and Army veteran Bill Campbell and Columbia College Student Council president and ROTC advocate Learned Foote, multiple Columbia Spectator staff editorials calling for ROTC at Columbia, Columbia’s outreach to recent veterans with robust participation in the Yellow Ribbon program, the unveiling of the Columbia War Memorial, and highly visible commissioning ceremonies on campus. In 2006, Columbia even amended the university non-discrimination policy to add “military status” as a protected category.
The devil is in the details
As stated earlier, since DADT ended as the justification for separating Columbia and ROTC, skeptics have challenged the practicality of an ROTC program at Columbia from the military’s perspective. Issues cited include student interest, providing satisfactory physical facilities, granting ROTC instructors faculty status and titles, and granting academic credit for ROTC courses. As with any ambitious institutional change, the devil is in the details, but all the issues cited are resolvable:
a. Student interest in ROTC
Skeptics point to the current low number of ROTC students at Columbia in order to claim that student interest is too low to sustain an ROTC program on campus. However, their contention is impossible to prove or disprove without an ROTC program on campus. The damaged status of ROTC at Columbia after 1969, alienation from poor exposure, distance and poor access in urban terms, and lack of institutional assistance likely deter most Columbia students from seriously considering ROTC. It’s simply unfair to judge Columbia students for not joining an ROTC program that isn’t there. We first have to plant the seed in order to grow the tree – building up ROTC student numbers at Columbia first requires ROTC on campus. Then, as Columbia ROTC is nurtured into a fully integrated and supported part of the university, Columbia ROTC student numbers will grow over time. That’s just common sense. Roughly one-fourth of the undergraduate population is renewed every year. After ROTC is established on campus and properly advertised, eventually every student applying to Columbia will know about the ROTC program on campus.
Of course, financial incentives help attract students from elite – and expensive – universities like Columbia to any career field. In order for the military to compete for the best students, the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel recommends:
To attract more youth to military careers and recruit from the nation‘s top colleges, the services should offer full scholarships on a competitive basis, usable anywhere a student chooses to attend, in exchange for enlisted service in the reserves (and summer officer training) during schooling, and 5 years of service after graduation, to include officer training school.
It is worth noting that, of the three ROTC programs, Navy ROTC is viewed by many as the ROTC program most likely to succeed at Columbia. The undergraduate NROTC survey of 2008 originated from SEAS students requesting the pathway to Naval officership, and in spite of the unpopularity of DADT, SEAS students voted in favor of Navy ROTC at Columbia. Unfortunately, despite the demonstrated student interest, Columbia students have zero access to NROTC. The absence of NROTC at Columbia is made doubly tragic by the storied history of Naval officer training at Columbia. Many alumni supporters are Navy veterans who would be particularly supportive of a Navy ROTC on campus.
b. Physical facilities for ROTC
ROTC campus space needs are relatively modest and could reasonably be met at Columbia under current conditions. ROTC-friendly neighboring spaces such as Grant’s Tomb and Central Park would augment the space available for ROTC. Furthermore, the projected timeline of the Manhattanville university expansion coincides with the likely timeline for starting an ROTC program at Columbia, which should increase the space available for ROTC on the main campus.
c. ROTC instructors’ faculty status and titles
A key constraint is the law governing ROTC, the ROTC Vitalization Act of 1964. Its provisions should not block efforts at Columbia to restore ROTC; they include the following:
No unit may be established or maintained at an institution unless the senior commissioned officer of the armed force concerned who is assigned to the program at that institution is given the academic rank of professor… and the institution adopts, as a part of its curriculum, a four-year course of military instruction … which the Secretary of the military department concerned prescribes and conducts.
The faculty appointment issue has been solved well at universities comparable to Columbia. At MIT, for example, ROTC leaders are designated as “visiting professors.” At Princeton, ROTC professors are assigned “a rank equivalent to the senior academic rank of professor.” Both these formulations satisfy the law without undermining the status of regular tenured professors and accord with Columbia’s instructional appointment policy.
d. Academic credit for ROTC courses
The courses of instruction issue has also been solved in ways that fit with the values of comparable universities. Although it has been claimed that “the University would also have to grant credit for ROTC coursework” there is no such requirement in the law. Indeed, Princeton has announced that “credit would not be provided at Princeton” for ROTC courses, despite language in the 1972 Army-Princeton agreement that “academic credit for military professional subjects will be judged by the institution under the same procedure and criteria as for other institutional courses.” Similar conditions for ROTC courses may be observed at MIT.
The Princeton arrangement demonstrates a basic model on which the university and the military can agree. More importantly, efforts at Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia have pointed the way towards an ROTC+ model that builds on the basic model by making available high quality courses valued by both the university and the military. These ROTC+ efforts have been of two types:
Regular faculty arranging ROTC credit: Professors at comparable universities such as Harvard have taught courses that were coordinated with the military and received ROTC as well as university credit. This model can be expanded, especially as the subject areas relevant to military leadership continue to expand. Although universities may have significant gaps in areas of interest to the military, departments are glad for opportunities to hire top scholars to cover important areas.
ROTC faculty arranging university credit: Columbia has discussed having regular university departments co-sponsor ROTC courses deemed worthy of academic credit. With a similar vision, the Army has sent ROTC leaders with PhDs to Princeton, positioning them to have joint appointments in regular departments.
Under these models, some courses could be offered with joint Columbia and ROTC credit. Creating an ROTC+ model in which ROTC students get courses such as military history, international relations, game theory, and anthropology provides to the military a “laboratory of the universities,” and also enhances the course offerings of the university. ROTC+ offers capabilities that are a plus both to the university and the military.
The next steps to Columbia ROTC
“Now, as anyone who has been involved in transformation knows, change can be hard. It can be challenging. And it can be frustrating. Inevitably, all institutions resist change to some degree–even when all recognize that change is needed.”
—Army General David Petraeus, May 6, 2010
President Bollinger’s encouraging statement immediately following the repeal of DADT was the necessary first step towards restoring the Columbia ROTC partnership.
The next step is for the University Senate to deliberate, then approve ROTC. Input from the Columbia community will be vital to the University Senate’s decision. If the University Senate approves ROTC, university officials would then reach out to the military to start negotiating an ROTC program at Columbia. In order for the military and Columbia to negotiate constructively, it is important that the two sides deal with each other in good faith, are motivated by compelling interests and tangible benefits, and judge Columbia ROTC by a standard that favors Columbia’s institutional strengths. The intervention of political leaders to break through bureaucratic deadlocks may be necessary. Alumni will also be crucial. Columbia alumni have a strong voice in both the university and in government. Alumni are crucial in encouraging students to apply to Columbia and encouraging them to try ROTC. Alumni are also crucial in transcending bean-counter arguments and providing resources to achieve important goals.
A call to action
“The moral compass of the Army is the P.L. [platoon leader, usually a lieutenant] and the C.O. [commanding officer]. I told every one of my P.L.’s that they have to set that moral standard, that once you slip to the left, you can’t pull your guys back in.”
—Army Captain Dan Kearney, February 24, 2008
Few causes are as manifestly impactful as advocating for Columbia ROTC. As it is today, much of the weight of future missions will be borne by young officers. They must be able to lead their soldiers in any combination of homeland defense, disaster relief, crisis stabilization, ministerial training, conflict prevention, security and stability, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, essential government services, emergency infrastructure, and humanitarian aid. In the short term, young lieutenants and captains prepared by Columbia ROTC will be better equipped to rapidly innovate and adapt to unpredictable challenges. Over their careers, a strong academic foundation will help Columbia officers to master their duties with a commensurately greater acquisition of faculties. Pentagon budget cuts that may lead to leaner capabilities on the ground and the forecast of politically sensitive missions that rely on smaller numbers of forces further point to a heightened need for the exceptional individual officers that Columbia can provide the nation.
The challenges facing America are great, but so are the opportunities. At this crossroads in our history, Columbia must choose: are we an “Ivory Tower” disconnected from the needs of People and nation, and only good for insular thinking and selfish pursuits? Or, are we truly America’s producer of vanguard leaders who pursue the greater good and the improvement of all parts of our society, including the military?
The challenge of our time demands the best leaders from our generation. As Dr. Martin Luther King said in another time of pressing need in American history:
Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.
As Columbians and Americans, it is again time for us to stand with a greater determination, for the sake of People and nation. The decision we make for ROTC at Columbia is about more than just ROTC. We are shaping our generation’s vision of Columbia University and of ourselves as fellow citizens.
Blueprint for Harvard ROTC
The Changing Landscape of American Higher Education — Panel on the Military and Academe