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.