Re-legitimizing ROTC

GEN David Petraeus sits next to Harvard President Drew Faust at a 2009 military commissioning ceremony.

The prospect of reform of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law has raised hopes for the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps returning to those top colleges where it has been absent since the Vietnam era.  This opportunity to welcome ROTC at colleges that have shunned it offers a “blank-slate” for designing the enhanced “ROTC+” programs of the future.  However, on the road to the future there has been an attempt to re-write history in a New York Times op-ed by Diane Mazur that suggested that there are “no universities that ban ROTC”:

While Harvard is often described as “expelling” ROTC in 1969, the story is more nuanced. After the military refused to meet Harvard’s standards on academic coursework, the faculty voted to relegate the program to an extracurricular activity, and the military decided to leave.

This account is so incomplete that it is misleading.  Although it is legalistically correct to say that top colleges such as Harvard didn’t “ban” ROTC in the 1960s, the colleges knowingly created conditions under which ROTC could not remain legally.  In 1969, Harvard and other colleges, upset over the Vietnam war, cancelled faculty appointments and course listings for ROTC, thereby running afoul of the provisions in the ROTC Vitalization Act of 1964.  That law specifies:

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.

Contemporaneous accounts by ROTC professors at Harvard make clear that the 1964 law was central to the deliberations at the time.  Three months before the 4 February 1969 deliberations and vote by Harvard’s faculty, Col. Robert H. Pell, professor of Military Science at Harvard, wrote to Harvard’s Committee on Educational Policy that “reasons for wanting to destroy ROTC are patently contrived because they are exactly the same reasons that existed without challenge for 50 years before Vietnam clouded our vision and robbed our logic”.  He discussed in detail both the constraints of the 1964 law and the eagerness of the military to have courses of the highest academic quality.

Three days after the faculty vote, Capt. Thomas J. Moriarty, professor of Naval Science at Harvard, made clear that Harvard had removed the legal basis for its ROTC programs:

Moriarty said that without a professorship, NROTC could not remain at Harvard without violating a Federal law which states that no ROTC unit may be 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.”

Moriarty said that he could only interpret the Faculty’s decision on ROTC as withdrawing ROTC’s “invitation” to remain at Harvard. He added that the Faculty is mistaken if it expects NROTC to violate Federal law or to go to Congress to change the law.

Correspondence between Franklin L. Ford, Dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Nathan M. Pusey, president of Harvard on 11 February 1969 and 14 February 1969 confirm that the university understood that the faculty vote on “faculty control of curricular offerings and academic appointments” had removed the legal basis for Harvard’s ROTC programs.

In contrast, other top universities, including MIT and Princeton, found ways of dealing with the criteria in the 1964 law about faculty appointments and courses.  These universities managed to keep their ROTC programs.

On the issue of faculty appointments, MIT appoints its ROTC faculty as visiting professors, a distinction that satisfies both the regular faculty and the 1964 law.  Similarly, at Princeton, a 1972 agreement between the army and the university refers explicitly to the 1964 law and confers a special professor-level rank on the ROTC leader:

The institution will confer the title, Director of Army Officer Education Program, on the senior Army officer assigned to the Army ROTC detachment, indicating a rank equivalent to the senior academic rank of professor, including the prerogatives and privileges associated with the position of a professor or director as head of a department or program at the institution.

Harvard considered similar arrangements.  In the 11 February letter, Dean Ford raised the possibility that:

the Corporation would offer professorial appointments to the ROTC unit heads, quite outside the structure of this [Arts and Sciences] Faculty.

Nothing came of that idea, and the military complied with the 1964 law and withdrew all ROTC programs from Harvard.

On the issue of the “course of military instruction”, many ways of creating enhanced “ROTC+” programs for top colleges were discussed or implemented.  In 1958 at Harvard, the army added courses to the ROTC curriculum taught by a young lecturer in the Government department, Henry Kissinger.

The purpose of this experiment, according to [Col. DeVere P.] Armstrong [professor of Military Science and Tactics], is to give future Harvard officers a much broader viewpoint on world affairs than the straight military reserve training provides. The University’s program is considerably more difficult than the average Army ROTC course, and thus provides its students with a better quality of training.

In 2002, with Harvard ROTC students doing their military training at MIT, ROTC credit was given for a course taught by Harvard Professor Stephen P. Rosen, who had been a professor at the Naval War College and served on National Security Council before joining the Harvard faculty:

For the first time since the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) was kicked off campus in 1969, cadets this fall will be able to take a Harvard course for military credit.

Former cadet Brian R. Smith ’02 and Col. John Kuconis, who commanded the Air Force ROTC detachment at MIT before retiring this summer, led the effort to win ROTC headquarters’ approval of Government 1730, “War and Politics” to fulfill the Air Force’s sophomore military history requirement.

Smith, who had suggested the course to Kuconis, asked the University to promote such ROTC waivers in a successful Undergraduate Council bill in May, saying they would ease the travel burden on cadets while giving them the opportunity to learn from world-class Harvard professors.

Other ways of achieving joint university-ROTC credit were discussed during deliberations in March 1969 about ROTC at Columbia University.  The possibility was raised of university credit for courses taught by ROTC commanders as long as the courses were also “listed in the offerings of a regular academic department”.  Nothing came of that idea and the military complied with the 1964 law and withdrew all ROTC programs from Columbia.

Blaming the military for complying with the 1964 law after universities knowingly removed the legal basis for ROTC is unfair.  But it is entirely to appropriate to point out that in subsequent decades the military has shown some reluctance to re-engage, not only with the top colleges, but with entire regions where they are located.  Sean Wilkes, a recent ROTC graduate, reviewed this issue, and John Renehan, a lawyer with the Defense Department, described the magnitude of the regional changes:

In the past two decades, the Army has shrunk the resources devoted to its Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs — a primary source of new officers — at colleges in a number of states and large urban areas. According to public Army documents, the reductions were particularly sharp in the Northeast, which had 50 ROTC programs in 1987. That number is down to 27 today.

These closures were part of post-Cold War drawdowns and budget cutbacks, but the selective pattern of the reductions amounted to a nationwide realignment of ROTC resources.

Diane Mazur raised similar concerns in her NYT op-ed, and she argued for the importance of the military returning to top colleges:

The military may be more comfortable when it retreats to parts of the country with a disproportionate number of military installations — and where universities don’t ask a lot of questions. That sense of comfort, however, works against a military with a desperate need for a more diverse officer base and a wider variety of language and cultural skills.

Leaving out the 1964 law from the history of ROTC in the 1960s is a serious omission since it ignores the fact that many top colleges knowingly removed the legal basis for ROTC, and thereby left the military no option under the law but to leave.  However, we should also credit top colleges with planting the seeds for the enhanced “ROTC+” programs of the future.  There is much value in the ROTC+ vision of high quality courses with joint university and ROTC credit, whether taught by regular faculty or ROTC commanders.

There is much for both the universities and the military to do to bring about this ROTC+ vision, a theme discussed in some detail by recent Columbia graduate and Army veteran Eric Chen.  Universities should extend their high academic standards to cover military-related areas, upgrading their often spotty faculty expertise in such areas.  They should declare their openness to having ROTC programs on their own campuses, and giving formal recognition to participation by their students in cross-town programs if the military prefers such a consolidation, including appropriate course credit along the lines of the ROTC+ model.  The military should welcome the opportunity to learn from world-class faculty at top colleges, and use this opportunity both to enhance traditional military-related courses and to experiment with courses in areas of newly appreciated importance such as anthropology and game theory.

It is time to put the enmity of the 1960s behind us.  For universities, it is time to act upon their desire to provide top-level training in all areas, including those related to the military.  For the military, it is time to welcome the chance to have an ROTC+ “laboratory of the universities” in which to train promising young officers and develop a curriculum that can be applied more widely.

6 thoughts on “Re-legitimizing ROTC

  1. Eric says:

    “The military should welcome the opportunity to learn from world-class faculty at top colleges”

    The thrust of my Ivy ROTC+ argument extends the notion that Ivy League universities are specially equipped to provide an enhanced education for future officers. My point is that the needs lately identified by the military in response to an unpredictable security landscape call for the kind of preparation that Ivy ROTC+ can provide to officers. Using the military's official projections, an Ivy ROTC+ foundation is approaching necessity where it was once viewed as luxury.

  2. […] how many Harvard students would join ROTC.  Furthermore, the military remembers that Harvard effectively barred ROTC in 1969 and remembers “Harvard’s 40-Years of Anti-Army ROTC Rhetoric“.  […]

  3. Michael Segal says:

    There is some interesting material in the 7 February 1969 document “Stanford University ROTC Departments: A Report and Recommendations” (

    Recognizing the requirements of the ROTC Vitalization Act of 1964, the majority proposed off-campus military training that “would not and should not be denoted as “ROTC”” and “representatives of the armed forces at Stanford shall carry no academic rank”. They said that under any closer relationship “ROTC would remain the corporate representation of the armed forces within the structure of the University staffed by professional military officers”. The minority considered the majority recommendations to be “tantamount to abolition” of ROTC. The minority proposed retaining ROTC with the university senate appointing a Military Studies Committee to determine credit for ROTC courses and review appointments of ROTC faculty. “The [Military Studies] Programs shall include accredited courses offered by the Department of Military Studies, courses offered in other departments of the University, and any approved military science Undergraduate Specials.” After considering a title of “Visiting Professor” for military faculty, the minority rejected that approach because military faculty stay longer than one year and have administrative responsibilities; instead they proposed retaining Professor appointments.

    The Stanford Review gives the following account of what happened next ( In early 1970, the Faculty Senate agreed to offer academic credit on a course-by-course basis to ROTC courses, but reversed course after the war escalated with the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, ultimately resulting in the decision to phase out academic credit by 1973. The ASSU Senate (then a larger, combined entity) agreed and passed a resolution against allowing any group designed for military training to be designated a [Voluntary Student Organization].

  4. Michael Segal says:

    The ASSU Senate, mentioned in the previous comment, is the “Associated Students of Stanford University” Senate, so its vote carried no official weight as university policy.

    A 12 September 1973 “Log on ROTC at Stanford 1968-1973” ( offers some additional details, but little clarity on exactly what happened. After the 7 February 1969 report, the University Senate voted to phase out academic credit for ROTC courses, but after Stanford students voted in a referendum in support of such credit, the Senate voted on 22 January 1970 to “allow academic credit to be given on a course-for-course basis”. A 16 April 1970 student referendum narrowly supported retaining ROTC on campus and overwhelmingly disapproved the granting of credit for ROTC courses. On 1 June 1970 the Advisory Committee on ROTC Affairs recommended phasing out ROTC by June 1972, and 3 days later the Senate endorsed the recommendation.

  5. Michael Segal says:

    More details on the Stanford history: In the 4 March 2010 “Stanford University ROTC Excerpt from Faculty Senate Minutes” ( Professor David Kennedy referred to a 1969 proposal by the military for academic credit on a course-by-course basis, and said “The Faculty Senate accepted that proposal in January of 1970, and then reversed itself, May 7th, 1970, the week of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. [Finally] it reversed its vote entirely and stated, 'We want ROTC off the campus by the end of the next academic year'”.

  6. SamanthaCaiola2014 says:

    Dr. Segal, I am a Northwestern student doing a project for a class about ROTC returning to Ivy League schools from which it was once banned. I have read your commentary all over the Internet and would love to speak to you about the subject, as your commentary would be a great asset to my research. If you could spare ten minutes (I'll make it quick, I promise), it would be a huge help. Please e-mail me at so we can set something up

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