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Everything You Need to Know About ROTC At Columbia

A typical scene from the ROTC town hall meetings

One of the most controversial issues at Columbia last year was the return of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) Program. It was the talk of the national media and dominated campus politics for a good semester. Bwog brings you up to speed with this primer on ROTC at Columbia.

Some historical context:

Columbia has played a prominent role in educating America’s servicemen since its foundations, and this tradition continued well into the 20th century. In 1969, responding prevalent antimilitary sentiment sparked by the Vietnam War, Columbia forced the NROTC program to leave campus. The university committee tasked with investigating the program argued that NROTC instructors were loyal first to the Navy and not Columbia. Columbia saw a conflict between “free inquiry and loyalty to external commitments.”

Since Columbia terminated its relationship with the Navy in ’69, there have been multiple unsuccessful efforts to revive the ROTC program. In 2005, the University Senate voted down a resolution that would have brought back ROTC. Critics argued the military’s policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” violated Columbia’s non-discrimination policies. There was also a potential return in 2008: student councils organized a referendum on ROTC that asked whether the program should be brought back. However due to drama such as fraudulent votes, the issue was never even presented to the USenate. Since the ban, Columbia students could still participate in the ROTC, but had to enroll in programs at other schools, like Fordham.

What happened last year to reignite this issue on campus?

The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Literally the day after the law was changed the U.S. Senate voted to repeal the law, the Columbia University Senate created the Task Force on Military Engagement to investigate Columbia’s involvement with the military, and the school’s stance on ROTC. The task force devoted months to their investigations of Columbia’s military engagement, and organized town hall meetings and an online survey to gauge student opinion.

What were the town halls like?

The town halls were surprisingly civil, but not without their controversial moments. The town halls consisted of students, faculty, and anyone else affiliated with the University stepping up to a microphone and addressing the task force with their thoughts on the issue. The biggest controversy came during the second town hall meeting when a GS veteran was heckled when announcing his support for ROTC’s return. The NYPost took this opportunity to get in on the action in their usual manner and stirred controversy by claiming some students called the veteran a racist. Aside from this controversy and the occasional jeering during the meetings, the town halls were a decently effective way for Columbians to voice their opinions to the task force on the issue.

How did the student survey go?

In terms of voter turnout, we’ve seen better—only a scant 2,252 students responded out of an eligible pool of 11,629. The results of the survey indicated those participated were in favor of the return of ROTC; about 60% said they would approve of ROTC’s return to Columbia’s campus.

So with all these opinions gathered, what did the Task Force on Military Engagement and USenate do?

The task force, supplied with opinions from all parts of the Columbia community in the form of town hall speeches, survey results, and personal emails, eventually delivered a report to the USenate. The report didn’t contain a specific recommendation whether or not to invite ROTC back, but included a summary and analysis of all the task force’s findings.

With this report, four months after the U.S. Senate voted to repeal DADT, the USenate came up with a resolution that supported Columbia reengaging with the military, with a clause stating specifically that this included participation in programs such as ROTC. After much deliberation, the resolution passed the USenate, 51-17-1. A few weeks later, the university announced that it had agreed with the U.S. Navy to reinstate the Naval ROTC program at Columbia.

What can we expect now?

PrezBo has stressed that the return of NROTC to Columbia’s campus is contingent on the actual repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy—in fact, nothing will happen until the very date that DADT is off the books. However, that day, September 20, is coming up very soon. But when that day does come, you won’t suddenly see cadets running all over the place; there surely needs to be plenty of bureaucratic finagling first. And although future protests or demonstrations are not out of the question, it’s a definite fact that ROTC will return to Columbia. This controversy made quite a splash on campus last semester, but it still remains to be seen just how much of an impact ROTC will actually have on our community when it returns.

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  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous no discussion of the return of ROTC is complete without noting that it was almost singlehandedly the achievement of Tao Tan CC’07

    1. Why, yes, says:

      @Why, yes, …as Tao himself will be the first to tell you.

  • Michael Segal says:

    @Michael Segal Just for the record, DADT was not just a policy of the military, it was a federal law and it was repealed. Also, I’ve never been convinced there was any significant fraud in the 2008 vote. Some people published their email with voting codes and some people changed votes, but it was not clear that any of this was significant fraud affecting the vote, in which two colleges voted for ROTC even with DADT and two voted against. With DADT gone, a different proposition was on the table and the U Senate vote reflected the mood on campus.

    And also for the record, in addition to Tao Tan and Jose Robledo being there to carry the ball across the finish line in the U Senate, many other students, alumni and faculty played crucial roles in the effort. Among others who played crucial roles as students over the years were Eric Chen, Sean Wilkes, Learned Foote, John McClelland and Mark Xue. They played crucial roles not only at Columbia, but by working for DADT reform.

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