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Faculty Perspectives on ROTC: “The Senate Isn’t the Sovereign Body of the University”

Yesterday afternoon on IAB 15, a panel of representatives from the upper echelons of Columbia’s faculty made some remarks on the issue of ROTC. The debate was notably free of the bristling tension of the Senate hearings. Each panelist spoke cogently and thoughtfully, covering nearly all the ideological points that pertain to the university as an academic institution and the issue. If you have not been paying attention to the discussion until now, we urge you take the time to read this.

The discussion, co-sponsored by SIPA the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War & Peace Studies, was organized independently of the USenate’s Task Force on Military Engagement, although Jim Applegate, faculty chair of the 2004-5 Task Force and current Task Force member was there to give some opening remarks. He touched briefly upon the history of ROTC at Columbia, and results of the student survey (of the 20% who responded, 60% approve of ROTC’s return to campus). The Task Force did not recommend a definitive decision on engagement, he emphasized. Following Applegate, four professors, two pro, and two anti, were given ten minutes each to share their views, moderated by John Coatsworth, Dean of SIPA.

Emeritus Sociology professor Alan Silver broached the topic by examining the citizen soldier. Since the draft was abolished, the divide between the type of citizens who serve in the army and those who do not has vastly increased. This divide has a dramatic geographic dimension—for instance Virginia has 12 ROTC programs, compared to New York City’s two, despite having two million more people than the entire state. Officers are not predominantly being recruited from geographic locations and institutions that promote highly selective education. Silver considers it a “civic scandal” that those with greater prospects are not represented in military service, calling it a  “disadvantage to the republic.”

Next he addressed the militarization debate. Students enter the military only after graduation, and the University should not preclude students’ postgraduate plans when they do not in any other circumstances. After all, “the world is not a campus.” (here he also stated the obvious but critically overlooked fact the contracts are signed by students as consenting adults, and the University should respect their right to exercise that agency.) In what was to become a predominant theme, he observed that opposition to the military was only a matter of perspective, and that similar objections could be made to the Business School perpetuating “wicked capitalism” or humanities departments sheltering “enclaves of tenured radicals,” without inferring that any of these spheres appropriate the whole institution. “ROTC and its opponents can live in this kind of coterie. In their presence together one may learn something of great value from the other,” he concluded.

Bruce Robbins, hailing from English and Comp Lit, wasn’t eager to participate in the forum. “I have better things to do,” he said. However, at the last minute, reading the following headline convinced him: “NATO Helicopters Kill Nine Afghan Boys.” Robbins took the position that the issue has greater ideological complications. We need to ask ourselves “ethical questions about US military from a viewpoint which is larger than that of our campus and larger than that of our nation.” He ran through a long list of occupations and interventions that America should not be proud of, (and also that one million Vietnamese died, but that he was leaving the Vietnam War out of the discussion) emphasizing how our historical record deviates from the international norm and from the practices we expect of other countries. “Would we make that [the US military’s agenda] seem more natural or normal or less by putting ROTC on our campus?” he asked. Whether or not your choose to call it imperialism, Robbins argued, the US’ practices are immoral and illegal by international law. “We have a moral obligation to do everything we can to prevent people from thinking it’s[this practice] natural and normal,” which includes not inviting the ROTC on campus.

He snidely dismissed the “cost-benefit analysis” published in the Spectator, which reduced the issue merely to practical benefits and drawbacks. He claimed it was fair (“though I’m open to correction”) to demand ethical questions of the US military to which the ROTC is intimately connected, just as we reject the morality of a white soldier enforcing apartheid, a Russian solider occupying Afghanistan, or even a German soldier in World War Two: “I almost vowed not to bring up the Nazis.”

Richard Betts, PoliSci professor and Director of the Saltzman Institute, rejected Robbins’ ethical critique of “military engagement.” The military is a subordinate agencies of the US government, so if the issue is anything, it’s a question of government engagement, in his view. Betts dismissed academic, and economic considerations as largely irrelevant, and presented what he termed the only three logical grounds for opposition (he flat-out dismissed the transgender argument): Pacifism— that the army should not exist at all. He respects this position; If armed force should exist, it should not include Columbia graduates—and such a  “caste system of professions” doesn’t make any sense; If armed services should exist and Columbia graduates want to lead them, the University should not be involved with it. This last reason would only make sense if you demand a radical readjustment of university activity at any level. Here once again the evils of the Business school were cited. The university facilitates institutions with disagreeable practices in all sorts of ways, and accepts funding from various organizations that could be considered similarly objectionable on ideological grounds.

The critique of this line of reasoning was taken up by Astronomy professor David Helfand. All three speakers on the topic thus far had failed to distinguish satisfactorily between individuals and institutions. “I do not object to Columbia students in ROTC, but I do not want Columbia university to sponsor it,” he stated. The military as an institution is “fundamentally antithetical” to the free inquiry that is the mission of the university. This is not something that the students should have a say in; taking a stab at the Senate, he quipped that we should not “move to a system by referendum or we’ll end up like California.” Their survey was not a reflection of the institution, because does not include faculty. Whether or not the institution should engage with the military, is really what, in his opinion, the debate should address.

Much of the discussion focused on the students has been sheer arrogance on our part, he argued. Helfand’s been to Westpoint and they’re far better at math there. He further dismissed the grounds that an ROTC program would attract diversity of students as “risible.” Helfand is not at all sure that Columbia students have anything special to offer the ROTC or the US military, but that as an institution we would be best served by keeping ourselves separate. Just because the Business school engages with the financial world, “doesn’t mean that we should invite Goldman Sachs partners to come and teach in departments of their design.” He illustrated his point that the institutions of the military and academy fundamentally clash by recounting an anecdote from another era of military engagement, when Dwight Eisenhower was, for a short time, President of the University. At a meeting of the faculty, Eisenhower addressed those assembled as “employees of the university.” He was immediately corrected: “Excuse me sir, we are the university.”

There was little left to elaborate on by the end of the four statements. A few questions and comments came from the audience, but each professor stood by their carefully considered and well-explained lines of reasoning. For such diametrically opposed views, there was surprising agreement between the four panelists on the following:

  • If the ROTC were to return to campus it would only be as an extra curricular activity. Conditions would include that military instructors  not be appointed as full professors and that courses would not count for academic credit, as is currently the case at MIT and Princeton. Silver called the idea of the military owning a piece of the university “abhorrent.”
  • The faculty firmly believe they should have the final say. “The senate isn’t the sovereign body of the university, the faculty is the sovereign body of the university,” concluded Silver, siding with Helfand. He objects to phraseology of ROTC “returning”; if the program comes back it will be “on our terms, not their terms.”

The senate will probably vote on the issue on April 1, but there is a chance that it could be postponed until the following plenary, on April 29.

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  • sarah says:

    @sarah “Would we make that [the US military’s agenda] seem more natural or normal or less by putting ROTC on our campus?”

    There certainly is a way to have ROTC on campus while continually engaging it in critical dialogue and analysis, without having it subsume into a normalized part of our lives. In fact right now you may argue the army is a normalized part of the background of our lives, and bringing it to the forefront could spark the type of critical dialog he seems to be looking for. It seems the real issue not normalcy but ethics (moral or immoral), but normalcy is a more p.c. way to put it.

    “…doesn’t mean that we should invite Goldman Sachs partners to come and teach in departments of their design.”

    It’s a little unfair to say that ROTC instructors come in and teach classes of their own design as well since ROTC classes will most likely not count as academic credit, but rather as an “extracurricular activity.” Still a little unconvinced that having ROTC on campus is different from having G-Sachs on campus, if you believe both organizations’ aims are problematic.

    “The senate isn’t the sovereign body of the university, the faculty is the sovereign body of the university”

    Huh, what about the students?

    1. HAHAHA says:

      @HAHAHA The students are paying customers.

      The students do not represent revenue concentration.

      The students are 95% non-recurring revenue after 2-4 years.

      The students are customers, nothing more.

      Customers only have clout if 1) there is significant revenue concentration in very few names, and 2) the revenue is recurring.

      Get over yourself.

      1. sarah says:

        @sarah i was thinking normatively, meaning in principle, since we are the students being recruited, we ought to have a say. practically, you’re right, we don’t really have clout.

        1. alum says:

          @alum Students have plenty of clout as far as bringing issues to the Senate. Students, not faculty, have driven the ROTC movement. Student activists inform and frame the issues. Ultimately, though, the Senate will decide however the Senate decides.

  • Senate Alum says:

    @Senate Alum Actually… The senate IS the sovereign body of the university, safe for the Board of Trustees.

    If you want proof, google “Columbia University Statutes”

    On the first link, a PDF, Page 33, Section 25 says:

    “Unless Trustee concurrence is required, acts of the University Senate under Sections 22 and 23 shall become final on passage. In all matters involving a change in budgetary appropri- ations, involving the acquisition or disposition of real property, affecting contractual obligations of the University, or as required by law, such concurrence shall be required. In all other matters, the action of the University Senate will be final unless the President shall advise the University Senate not later than its next regularly scheduled meeting that Trustee concurrence is necessary. Acts of the University Senate under Sections 22 and 23 shall be concurred in or not concurred in by the Trustees by the second stated meeting of the Trustees following the submission of the University Senate’s action to the Trustees, except when the Trustees shall advise the Uni- versity Senate of their need for a longer specified period of time to consider such actions. Whenever the Trustees do not concur in an act of the University Senate under Sections 22 and 23, they shall return the measure to the University Sen- ate with an explanation of the reason for their action. ”


    1. Senate Alum says:

      @Senate Alum *Save… Not Safe

    2. bonk says:

      @bonk “They are sovereign, save for the trustees” is like saying “This is ice cream, save for it being warm and made entirely of narwhal urine.”

      The powers provided in section 24 are pretty minor and are generally predicated on faculty cooperation. The duties and the subsequent implied power to execute those duties under section 23 are things like “developing” “recommending” “fostering” and “reviewing” policies as well as mucking about with its own construction.

      1. Section 24 says:

        @Section 24 is pretty piss-poor. The powers enumerated in 23 are the significant ones.

        “the University Senate shall be a policy-making body which may consider all matters of University-wide concern, all matters affecting more than one Faculty or school”

        Section 25 is pretty explicit that:
        “Unless Trustee concurrence is required, acts of the University Senate under Sections 22 and 23 shall become final on passage.”

  • wow says:

    @wow Bruce Robbins sounds like a huge jackass. Did he really just compare US soldiers to Nazis?

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous The rhetoric in this whole debate has been completely crazy and hyperbolic, but I would hold off on calling the people who say these things jack asses because of a bwog article… For instance, there was a gentleman at the first ROTC USenate meeting who compared having to take the train to Fordham to being “forced to sit at the back of the bus.” Although many, including myself, would consider this to be an absurd and offensive statement, I can’t say anything about the character of the veteran who said it, and instead prefer to view him as a brave and honorable man for serving my country, despite our disagreements over ROTC and rhetoric. In the same vein, our faculty is made up of some of the most intelligent people on the planet, it’s easy to forget this, but worth remembering. So Bruce Robbins called on people to think critically and question American hypocrisy, I’m okay with that, and I hope you would be too. He did so by asking us to consider American policy with the same scrutiny we do any other nation, including the worst in the world. You may not agree with his rhetorical strategies, nor his points over all, but please, hold off before insulting his character.

      1. back of the bus says:

        @back of the bus The metaphor is apt. By booting ROTC, Columbia devalued the military and military service. What Columbia did to ROTC was an overt act of segregation and class inequality. Practically, the University’s action has meant Columbia’s cadets have dealt with poor conditions in order to be cadets. Columbia even attempted to claim Fordham Army and Manhattan College Air Force ROTCs amounted to ‘separate but equal’ access to ROTC.

        Many Columbians have been insensitive to the “civic scandal” of the separation of ROTC from Columbia and the conditions imposed upon Columbia’s cadets, but then, many white Americans may have been insensitive to the civic scandal in their midst and the conditions faced by their black neighbors.

        1. Same Anonymous as Before says:

          @Same Anonymous as Before You seem to be making a ton of frightening assumptions in your argument. So let’s go through them one by one…

          “By booting ROTC, Columbia devalued the military and military service.” — No, by booting ROTC, Columbia rejected an institutional relationship with the military because they objected to having a pre-professional military program on campus that did not allow oversight by the faculty, and supported aggressive US policy. Question the military, however, does not mean devaluing it–that thought process is exactly the one anti-ROTC supporters use as a reason to not allow ROTC on campus. As many faculty and students have noted, a liberal arts university is many things, but first and foremost it is a place that fosters critical thought and broad focus, it is NOT a preprofessional institution (ROTC is a preprofessional program). Columbia is NOT devaluing military service either, we have the most veterans of any Ivy League school on campus, and do NOT infringe in any way upon student’s right to enlist, before, during, or after graduation. To conflate “booting ROTC” to devaluing military service, you make an extremely dangerous and offensive leap.

          “What Columbia did to ROTC was an overt act of segregation and class inequality.” –Interesting language choice here, namely the idea that Columbia “did” something to ROTC. If this were true, Columbia would be implicated as some unjustified attacker to the victim that is ROTC, which is a crazy idea. Another way of phrasing this would be, “In protecting its core values (stated above, critical thought and a liberal arts education) Columbia asked ROTC to leave campus, which was an overt act of segregation and class inequality.” However, this would also be wrong, because this was not an act of segregation and class inequality. There are two ways of viewing this, both from an overall admissions view (the argument that Columbia would be more diverse with ROTC on campus), and the idea that there is segregation in the Columbia community now, as those who participate in ROTC need to take the subway to participate. It is arguable that the university would be more diverse with ROTC (this is an argument that requires ACTUAL DATA, as solely positing this without any evidence is, once again, dangerously assumptive). But the purpose of kicking ROTC of campus was neither to segregate, nor create class inequality, and therefore it was not an overt act of either. Furthermore, Columbia issues the most Pell grants out of any Ivy League university, and is the most racially diverse, having over 50% minority students. The process of representing diversity is continual, and there are many ways to increase representation on campus, not just institutionalizing the military (let’s not get into the tangent of other ways now, if you want, we can discuss that as well later). As to the second possible argument, that of internal segregation, this is the most ridiculous of them all in my opinion. ROTC is an extracurricular, as acknowledged by both sides, and students across the university participate in a huge range of extracurriculars, that many times require them to leave campus. For example, a student who takes shamisen (japanese string instrument) lessons, must travel to Brooklyn, as Columbia, and in fact Manhattan, does not have a shamisen teacher. Is this segregation? No, just like ROTC, this is a personal choice that requires effort, it is not enforced and required separation of the student body, especially not by race, which it is being conflated with in this argument. Is a student working off campus segregated? Once again, no, for the exact same reason.

          “Practically, the University’s action has meant Columbia’s cadets have dealt with poor conditions in order to be cadets.” — Refer to the argument above. If cadets have faced harassment from particular students, let’s also agree that this was neither endorsed, nor condoned by the University. Secondly, please elaborate on what “poor conditions” you are talking about. The NYC subway system? Waking up early? These should be the least of an ROTC cadet’s concerns if they are joining the military. I would personally worry more about being trained to kill.

          “Columbia even attempted to claim Fordham Army and Manhattan College Air Force ROTCs amounted to ‘separate but equal’ access to ROTC.” — To be honest, I’m not even sure what you’re trying to say here… ROTC is not a required institution at all schools. Once again let’s use a counterexample: a restaurant like McDonalds does not exist on campus, students who wish to work at a McDonalds have to deal with poor conditions in order to be employees. Columbia even attempts to claim that McDonalds locations on 96th st or 125th st amount to ‘separate but equal’ access to McDonalds. Are those who want to be employees at McDonalds segregated from the rest of the University? No, this is of course ridiculous, as it is not the University’s responsibility to bring all opportunities students are interested in to campus. It is the University’s responsibility to teach critical thought and provide a high quality liberal arts education. It is also the University’s legal duty not to infringe on any citizen’s right to serve, work, etc. and the University is not infringing upon these rights by not bringing these opportunities to campus.

          “Many Columbians have been insensitive to the ‘civic scandal’ of the separation of ROTC from Columbia and the conditions imposed upon Columbia’s cadets,” — And here is where we reach your aria of stupidity! Many Columbians have been insensitive to the “civic scandal” of the separation of ROTC from Columbia, because there IS NO CIVIC SCANDAL. Please, say concrete examples of the “conditions imposed upon Columbia’s cadets” by the University. It is no more the University’s fault that cadets need to travel to Fordham or Manhattan College, than it is the Universities fault that I need to take the subway to my job downtown. The University is not housing ROTC cadets in some disgusting housing away from campus, requiring them to eat in separate rooms, use separate bathrooms, they are not denied the same education other Columbia students are (one of the best educations in the world), they do not have worse employment opportunities (if you are going to argue that the University allows students to be future presidents and senators but not generals, once again, you are wrong. The University does not limit anyones career choices, feel free to sign up for Officer Cadet School after graduation and start your path to being a general. This logic also assumes there is some pre-president major/program, which there is clearly not. There is PolySci, but this is not the politicians equivalent to ROTC). Furthermore, the University does not order these students to be beaten, nor would it turn a blind eye if they were, it does not burn crosses in cadet’s lawns, it does not grab and kill their parents, or them, in the middle of the night.

          And so, the latter part of your statement is correct, “many white Americans may have been insensitive to the civic scandal in their midst and the conditions faced by their black neighbors.” — You have demonstrated this quite clearly. I grew up in a small town in rural Alabama, where racism is still the norm. I personally know the “civic scandal” and the “conditions faced by [our] black neighbors,” and let me tell you, the least of their problems is having waking up early and take the subway. Columbia ROTC cadets are at one of the top schools in the entire world, living in one of the most vibrant and diverse cities in the world, and *this is important* not being fucked over in ANY comparable way to African Americans, whether now or decades/centuries ago.

          So to sum up, that is why the use of that metaphor is so offensive and wrong. It shows a complete lack of understanding not only about the role of the University, but mainly of what hardship, segregation, and discrimination truly is.

          That being said, I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt, and assuming you are a great, and kind person, who is interested in learning, and wants the best for people. So I don’t want to make the same mistake “wow” did with Bruce Robbins. All I ask is that you take the time to think through your position clearly, and pick metaphors extremely carefully. Words matter, and choosing them without thinking is one of the most dangerous things a person can do. You may disagree with me, and for all I know, I could be completely wrong, but please just take away the message that before you do, you should think.

          1. I think says:

            @I think you just proved his/her point.

        2. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous Doesn’t the fact that they make up more than 50% of the students make them the majority?

          1. Perhaps says:

            @Perhaps but that doesn’t matter. Since when does a major research university run on the basis of direct democracy? Or democracy at all for that matter?

  • WTF? says:

    @WTF? I thought you said “all of the positions were represented”? And yet I see that no one there discussed transgender and discrimination issues.

    1. Because says:

      @Because Transgendered people aren’t issues. Transgendered people HAVE issues. Seriously, if you have doubts about the gender and sexuality you were born with, you need psychological counseling, not “acceptance” and “support”.

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous Dude, fuck you. Being transgender isn’t a psychological issue just like being gay isn’t a psychological issue. These people can’t help the way they feel and they can’t be “cured” by counseling or any other means. It’s time to wake up, join the 21st century and stop discriminating against people who are different from you.

        1. Woah says:

          @Woah Slow down there, cowboy. If people “can’t help the way they feel” in spite of being endowed by nature and nature’s God with certain binary physiological features, they should be treated and given mental help, not have their fantasies indulged.

          1. Anonymous says:

            @Anonymous You shouldn’t have been dignified with a response. My mistake. Know that you are on the wrong side of history (see what I did there?).

          2. arparp says:

            @arparp If you don’t think it’s possible for someone to have physical and therefore hormonal developments that are contrary to their karotype then you’re ignorant of human biology. For example, ambiguous genitalia or intersexed genitalia occur with some regularity in newborns. Variance in genitals and reproductive organs are the most obvious conditions, but there are a number of conditions we know about related to variance in androgen/estrogen levels and response. There are also plenty that we don’t, so stop being a jerkface.

  • i'm curious says:

    @i'm curious simply curious, why transgender participation was considered a non-issue in this debate. because it is a minor issue quantitatively (a very small percent of transgender people would join the army)? because Columbia University itself doesn’t have a clear transgender policy for student admission?

    1. Because says:

      @Because “transgenderism” is a mental disease and the so-called “issue” shouldn’t be dignified by a response. At least that’s what the faculty seem to signal.

    2. my opinion says:

      @my opinion while many people are using ‘transgender discrimination’ to buttress their anti-Rotc arguments, no one is able to elucidate exactly how said discrimination occurs. in the case of transsexuals, it’s clear why the military might choose to disallow enlistment: they bring a host of unique and costly medical needs to the table. as for the less easily definable group of transsexuals who aren’t transgendered, it’s not clear how the military could really discriminate against such folks. this, in my opinion, is the reason the issue wasn’t even addressed during the forum. there’s not a whole lot to say.

      1. my opinion says:

        @my opinion pardon… i meant to say “the less easily definable group of transgenders who aren’t transsexuals”

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