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AskBwog: Why Did ROTC Get 65% Student Support in 2003 and Only 49% in 2008?

In 2005, the University Senate voted 53 to 10 (with 5 abstentions) against repealing the ban of ROTC on campus. At the time, the most recent student survey conducted about the issue (in 2003) showed that 65% of students were in favor of repealing the ban. Two days ago, only 49% of students who participated in the survey were in favor of repealing the ban. So what’s up with the 15% shift in attitudes? Here are a few theories.

1. Less favorable attitude towards the military. During the 2003 vote, September 11th was still fresh in the minds of everyone on campus, and some had even been in New York at the time. According to a 2005 New York Times article, “one supporter of the R.O.T.C. said yesterday that the Sept. 11 attacks may have softened attitudes toward the military.” In addition, the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, which was, at the time, actually popular. A Washington Post/ABC news poll in March conducted at the onset of the war showed that 62% of the country was in favor of military action in Iraq. Things are different now: besides New York locals, no current undergrads were at Columbia during 9/11, and it’s not at the forefront of the national consciousness like it was in 2003. And the War is of course deeply unpopular. Both these things could color students attitudes towards the military.

2. Increased LGBT presence. In a November interview with the Blue and White, Columbia Queer Alliance leader Peter Gallotta described the state of 2005’s LGBT community as “six people in the Stephen Donaldson Lounge” and a handful more who turned up for Queer Sushi. In contrast, the LGBT community of 2008 is an activist force to be reckoned with. CQA’s Facebook group boasts 172 members, and when the campus queer community speaks, students and members of administration listen. It’s very possible that the LGBT community’s strengthened voice on campus contributed to the shift in student opinion. Also, the NROTC vote was hot on the heels of the Propsition 8 vote. Students who had hoped that Prop 8 would have turned out differently may have been more inclined to support LGBT causes here at home.

3. Changes for campus conservatives and moderates. In the shadow of Obama’s win, many undecided voters could been influenced by the victorious spirit of liberalism on campus. They might have been more inclined to take cues from the Dems or other liberal campus groups who came out against repealing the ban. Politics has been in the shadow of Obama for about a month (some could argue longer), and that probably took attention away from conservatives. That Obama endorsed the return of ROTC himself didn’t seem bolster the presence of campus conservatives, who have been a quieter, more self-contained force on campus in the wake of Kulawik anyway.


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  • 2003 vote says:

    @2003 vote What percentage of students voted in 2003? How was the voting administered? These factors could perhaps account for the difference.

    The recent survey also had a high incidence of ‘voting irregularities’ to borrow a phrase from the 2000 presidential election, so perhaps it should not be compared to an earlier survey that did not have these issues.

    1. 2002-05 advocate says:

      @2002-05 advocate Many ROTC advocates at Columbia are liberals and the case for ROTC at Columbia is civic progressive.

      The 2003 poll was administered by CCSC jointly with the CCSC elections, so only CC students voted. Voting was still by paper then. I don’t remember the exact breakdown, but the total vote was roughly 1500.

      As for the question posed by the post, I choose 2, increased LGBT pressure. In 2002-03, LGBT students were aware of the ROTC movement on campus. In fact, ROTC advocates lobbied CQA early on for their support; then as now, Columbia ROTC advocates were DADT reformers. CQA decided to take took no position on the ROTC issue, either for or against.

      Therefore, the main difference between 2003 and 2008 is the opponents of ROTC. In 2002-03, the opponents were the usual suspects of counter-recruiters and anti-military groups. Opposition based on DADT wasn’t on their agenda.

      Therefore, DADT didn’t dominate the ROTC debate in 2002-03, as it did later on. By 2005, campus LGBT groups had changed their position on ROTC and were actively campaigning against ROTC on the grounds of DADT. I interpret the latter two votes as against DADT and not against ROTC per se.

      As a follow-up survey, I’d like to find out how many students would favor ROTC at Columbia if DADT is reformed. That question hasn’t been asked on a broad scale. The only time it was asked for the record was in the 2004-05 ROTC senate task force deliberations. They tied 5-5 on the question of immediate return for ROTC, but voted unanimously (may have been 1 abstention) to invite ROTC to Columbia if DADT was ended.

      1. Armin Rosen says:

        @Armin Rosen Wow, pretend that last point of mine wasn’t really badly written. Also, the Spec article you’re looking for is at

        1. Michael Segal says:

          @Michael Segal As far as the 2003 turnout, Spectator seems to have changed its URLs yet again and the relevant article is now at . The article makes it sound like the vote with 1503 turnout was just for CC. It would be helpful if someone could translate that into a turnout figure. However, since the question was part of a ballot with other questions it is not clear how invested voters were in the votes they cast on the ROTC issue. In 2005, after more discussion, all student senators voted against ROTC. It is not clear how much of these three different measures of student sentiment were true differences in sentiment or artifacts of the ways in which sentiment was measured.

    2. Michael Segal says:

      @Michael Segal In a 17 April 2003 Columbia Spectator article “High Turnout Decides CC Student Council Election”, towards the end of the article is results from “a referendum asking if the University should prohibit the ROTC from having a chapter at Columbia”. By a vote of 973 to 530, students favored allowing ROTC.

      Spectator’s URLs for older material seem to be renumbered, and I can’t find the original article at its original URL.

  • homo economicus says:

    @homo economicus Was the question worded the same in both surveys? Differences in language could also have contributed to the different results.

    It’s also premature to speculate about a “15% shift in attitudes” when, as the first poster noted, we don’t know to what extent the survey was compromised. At the very least Bwog should have listed a fourth hypothesis that the result is artificial.

  • simple. says:

    @simple. Now that soldiers are being killed every day in defense of our country, less students are willing to give their military recognition. I wish I didn’t think it was this simple.

  • look at the numbers says:

    @look at the numbers Segal points out that the 2005 vote was “973 to 530”. That’s far less than half that voted this time.

    1. Michael Segal says:

      @Michael Segal I don’t remember if the original vote was just CC, as one might suppose from the title of the article.

      Unfortunately when one searches for the article on Google one gets a second broken URL. Something is seriously wrong with Spectator’s URLs for older content.

  • errr says:

    @errr it’s fine to speculate and all, but this article should probably note again that the results this year are extremely flawed and probably do not accurately represent the true opinion of the actual number of people who voted.

  • one word answer says:

    @one word answer iraq

  • Michael Segal says:

    @Michael Segal To address the question raised by this item, both the attitude towards the military (a “duty” argument) and LGBT activism (a “rights” argument) seem to be important differences from 2003.

    Ranking rights over duty will not be well received outside the campus. Part of the effectiveness of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network comes from their having done their duty and then petitioning for their rights.

  • prop 8 says:

    @prop 8 swayed my vote

  • De Genova says:

    @De Genova I don’t know how many current students remember it, but in March 26, 2003, Professor Nicholas De Genova made a speech in a widely broadcast faculty anti-war “sit-in” in Low Library in which De Genova called for the killing and fragging of American soldiers.

    There was quite an uproar over it. Some students may have decided to vote for ROTC as a reaction to their disgust to Prof De Genova and recognized him as a sign that Columbia needs a healthier relationship with the military.

  • Armin Rosen says:

    @Armin Rosen This is an interesting but flawed analysis. 1) Assumes that the Iraq war was ever a big enough issue around here to sway votes either way. Going by the lukewarm campus Iraq activism over the past three years and the fact that the war was never all that popular at Columbia to begin with, I think attitudes towards US foreign policy didn’t have a lot to do with the way things turned out.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “the conservatives” in 3.). As the B&W itself pointed out not so long ago, “the conservatives” haven’t really been up to much lately–and the CUGOP (which is, to my knowledge, the largest and only conservative group on campus) did not mount any pro-NROTC campaign. While the pro-group swayed conservative, it included members of the CUGOP, the CUDems and even the CQA.

    As for the Dems opposing NROTC: it had nothing to do with the “victorious spirit of liberalism,” a spirit that, according to the Washington Blade and the New Republic, is well on its way to repealing DADT anyway. It had everything to do with coalition building with the suddenly-powerful CQA and EAAH.

    Your second point is dead-on, but the real reason for 16% drop in support for ROTC is a lot simpler than that: turnout. Only 1000 people voted in ’03, and the fact that the vote was initiated by the well-organized and well-connected Advocates for ROTC probably didn’t see much resistance from an apathetic student body. The wording of that referendum was much different than the one we voted on last week. From the Columbia University Military Community’s blog:

    “There was some trouble with the wording of the referendum, and we feel this should be explained. ICRA presented a list of possible questions for the referendum to David X. Cheng, the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs/Research and Planning, in the Office of Student Affairs. He is considered Columbia’s polling expert and his approval as an independent authority provided important legitimacy to the ROTC poll. Dean Cheng modified our questions and then submitted them to the CC Student Council. Rather than using our list of questions, however, the council decided to pick only one question and subsequently miscopied the question so that, rather than ask whether ROTC should return, it asked whether ROTC should be prohibited. It is a slight semantic difference, but it made a difference later when ROTC opponents argued that students were apathetic to or ignorant of the issue rather than displaying overt support for ROTC.”

    1. Michael Segal says:

      @Michael Segal Inside Higher Ed referenced the 2003 turnout as “about 1,000”, citing This conversion from exact numbers to an approximation was done by Inside Higher Ed; all that was listed on was the numbers from Spectator, “973 to 530”.

      The Spectator site has been down completely for the past hour. Before that all previous links to articles from 21 November 2008 and before seemed to be broken. Hopefully when it comes back up all previous links will work properly.

      I don’t know how the 1503 voting in 2003 converts to a turnout number, and without seeing the Spectator article or hearing from those involved I don’t know if the vote was CC only or included other colleges. But clearly turnout makes a difference – we saw an classic example yesterday when Sen. Chambliss won a runoff with a much higher percentage than he got on Nov. 4, but with far fewer votes.

      The group involved in the 2003 effort was Advocates for Columbia ROTC, a group led by Sean Wilkes CC ’06. “Advocates for ROTC” is just an umbrella group that hosts websites for some of the groups on different campuses and helps individual groups connect with one another.

      1. ICRA Chair says:

        @ICRA Chair Segal: “The group involved in the 2003 effort was Advocates for Columbia ROTC, a group led by Sean Wilkes CC ’06.”

        The group responsible for the Apr 2003 CCSC poll was still ICRA. ACR was formed the following year.

        Rosen: “the fact that the vote was initiated by the well-organized and well-connected Advocates for ROTC”

        Why, thank you, Armin. “Well-connected” sounds a bit ominous, but really, it was almostly entirely a student-generated effort at that point, using thoroughly grassroots unsophisticated labor intensive methods. We spent many hours standing behind our College Walk table, which we dragged over from Earl Hall, and postering the campus … and re-postering after our posters were repeatedly and mysteriously torn down. Good times.

        1. ICRA Chair says:

          @ICRA Chair I’ll also add that, unlike some activist groups whose materials seemed to be passed down to them, we wrote and designed our own advocacy material. Some of it was okay, some of it less so, but it couldn’t have been too bad considering the 2003 poll result.

        2. Michael Segal says:

          @Michael Segal “ICRA Chair” is right on the details, that Advocates for Columbia ROTC was not formed until after the 2003 referendum, as detailed at However, the ROTC effort at Columbia had its first public meeting in April 2002, as detailed at At the meeting, the formation of the national group Advocates for ROTC was announced as an umbrella group for Advocates for Harvard ROTC, Advocates for Yale ROTC and the group forming at Columbia, then called Students United for America. Sean Wilkes was already involved in the effort before the 2003 referendum, but the Columbia group did not take on the name Advocates for Columbia ROTC until after the referendum, though many of the early leaders, such as Eric Chen were involved both with the earlier groups and with Advocates for Columbia ROTC once it was formed.

  • zhb says:

    @zhb The poll in 2003 was horribly written. Incoherent, really. It was unclear whether a yes vote was for or against a repeal of the ban. I do not overstate. This could account for the huge shift in %.

    1. ICRA Chair says:

      @ICRA Chair “The poll in 2003 was horribly written. Incoherent, really. It was unclear whether a yes vote was for or against a repeal of the ban.”

      You can’t blame the ROTC advocates for that, though; the poll questions we wrote working closely with Dean Cheng were clear, but after we submitted the slate to the CCSC, they decided to pick and … edit.

      I disagree with your premise, though. The 2003 poll question, while certainly less than optimal, was not “incoherent”. I submit that, even in 2003, Columbia College students knew how to read.

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