ROTC at Columbia – Why This Isn’t Just A Gay Issue

Posted on March 3rd, 2011 by Katherine Franke

Columbia University’s newly formed Task Force on Military Engagement is considering whether the University should reverse it’s 42 year old policy severing an on-campus relationship with ROTC.  (Columbia students who wish to enroll in ROTC can do so through Fordham’s program. and receive full financial and other benefits.)

The University Senate, that has responsibility for making a recommendation on the issue to the university administration, has held a series of hearings on the issue, soliciting input from a range of stake-holders.  They have set up a useful and informative website containing information about the history of ROTC at Columbia as well as materials related to recent efforts to revisit the policy.

Faculty have submitted in-person testimony and written positions on the issue.  Both the Law and Business School Deans have issued statements enthusiastically supporting the return of ROTC to Columbia (in particular, the Law School Dean in his statement expresses support for the presence of veterans in law school classes, misunderstanding the nature of the ROTC program – it is a training corps, not a veterans program).

This is my view, a letter sent to the Task Force on Military Engagement yesterday:

To The Task Force and the Columbia Community:

I write to express my strong objections to the reinstatement of ROTC at Columbia University.  While I applaud Congress, President Obama, and the Department of Defense’s recent efforts to undertake the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, the specter of this discriminatory policy’s repeal does not, alone, justify the suspension of Columbia’s objections to the on-campus integration of civilian and military education.  The University resolved in 1969 to terminate its campus-based relationship with ROTC for reasons independent of the military’s overt policy of sexual orientation-based discrimination.  The concerns about an academic relationship with the military raised 42 years ago have not been eliminated.  Indeed, as I will explain below, they are compounded by additional grounds for rejecting the return of ROTC to the Morningside Heights campus.

The ideal of the civilian university is premised upon inquiry and critical analysis that values, for its own sake, a kind of curiosity that can be anarchic, disorderly, chaotic, blasphemous, anti-authoritarian and even treasonous.  Military training, on the other hand, privileges linear, rational, disciplined, authority-respecting and strategic modes of reasoning.  In theory, a university could accommodate both of these modes of learning, thinking and judgment, but in practice I worry about what it means to diversify the academic environment through a military presence. What concerns me about re-instituting an official pedagogical relationship to the military through ROTC is the degree to which universities such as Columbia remain one of the last domains of civil society that is not influenced directly by and conscripted into the investments and values of the military industrial complex, to borrow a term from one of Columbia University’s most illustrious past-Presidents Dwight Eisenhower.  This is an important value for its own sake and justifies maintaining Columbia’s now long-standing commitment to the values of a civilian education.

In conversation about these issues with other colleagues at the Law School, some have argued in support of the reinstatement of ROTC on the ground that modern military training is more supple and sophisticated than how it is often portrayed by its critics.  “The relationship between the chain of command and an individual officer’s own judgment is a topic of deep study and reflection among military scholars and at military education institutions like West Point,” one member of the law faculty put it to me.  While it may be true that in principle the military chain of command is more nimble and reflective than the picture painted by some of the opponents to ROTC, these advancements in military training and judgment are just that, principles or ideals.  In practice, the realization of this ideal for, among others, gay people and women in the armed forces has been a profound disappointment.  The frequency of homophobic and gender-based violence against women and men in the armed services has not decreased as a consequence of the purported modernization of the command structure.  Instead, the Pentagon’s own studies documented a double-digit increase in reported sexual assault last year.  Rather than rendering the chain of command more responsive to these incidents of violence, the state of the art officer corps training seems to result in a structure that is increasingly less sensitive or responsive to complaints of sexual violence.

Just last week a federal court action was filed in Virginia against the Department of Defense and Secretary Robert Gates alleging numerous, ongoing incidents of sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual violence against women and men in the military.  One of the plaintiffs stated: “The policies that are put in place are extremely ineffectual. There was severe maltreatment in these cases, and there was no accountability whatsoever. And soldiers in general who make any type of complaint in the military are subject to retaliation and have no means of defending themselves.” The suit claims that the plaintiffs pursued proper channels within the chain of command to address documented incidents of sexual violence, including rape.  The complainants were punished for doing so, and the alleged perpetrators were protected by the command structure.  These actions took place after the Department of Defense failed to implement congressionally mandated procedures for preventing and addressing sexual harassment and violence.

Similar incidents of violence against members of the armed forces who were thought to be gay or lesbian have received equally negligent, if not intentionally hostile, response from the chain of military command for years.

With or without DADT, the military and its attendant culture of violence has been a brutal “employer” for women and gay people, as have the service academies been a brutal “place of learning” according to their own internal studies.  Any other institution that routinely acquiesced in, if not condoned, such sexual violence and harassment by peers, supervisors, and educators would be barred from recruiting and training our students on campus – or at least I would hope so.

Beyond my doubts about the degree to which military training and its emphasis on the chain of command actually encourages the exercise of good, critical judgment, I have larger reservations about the increased militarization of the University through the full presence of ROTC on campus.  The present conversation about allowing ROTC back on campus is not simply for me a question of gay rights, it involves a much older and deeper concern about the relationship of the military to the civilian university that has a particular history at Columbia.  Now, as a generation ago, I would object to the conferral of Columbia University credit for ROTC courses taught by instructors who have not received an academic appointment.  Now, as a generation ago, I would object to the furnishing of space and related facilities to the military for the administration of the ROTC program.  Now, as a generation ago, I would object to the integration of military training and values into the fabric of civilian teaching, learning and research at Columbia.


Katherine M. Franke
Professor of Law
Director, Center for Gender & Sexuality Law
Columbia Law School


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  11. Thank you for your post, Professor Franke.

    To clarify, what does ROTC presence at Columbia mean? Does it mean that: (1) students can receive academic credit for ROTC participation; (2) ROTC instructors will be listed as Columbia Faculty; and (3) ROTC classes will be listed as course offerings at Columbia? My understanding is that pre-1960s, ROTC presence meant integration with the university’s academic offerings (a yes to each of the questions above).

    What would you think about classifying ROTC as a student group or an extracurricular group where students are able to use Columbia facilities for meetings, but ROTC is not integrated into Columbia’s academic program?

  12. Professor Franke,

    I am glad we live in a tolerant society. Your narrow view is noted. When you imply that the Law School Dean David Schizer is ignorant of the Term “Veteran” I have to inform you that this is matter of semantics, and that the broad and all inclusive definition of that term is anyone who has served so much as one day in our Military Services. I myself am a 33 year Veteran. I would allow an ROTC Cadet to call themselves a Veteran without reservation. I would not call them a “Combat Veteran” because they participated in a Food Fight at Columbia University, and I would have a hard time if they were awarded the Purple Heart for getting an [egg]shell fragment in their eye, even if they were in uniform and the offending shell was thrown at them as an act of “Political War” which is sadly the “Norm” of many young people at Columbia. I wonder where they can get such “non inclusive” and “repressive” ideas from? Certainly they could not be getting it from “enlightened” Tenured Professors such as yourself? Certainly, if they utilized the Socratic Method and examined the validity of all arguments presented, the inclusiveness of the Columbia University Student Body would not be marred by the exclusive and excluding attitude of the “Established Old Guard” and such poisoned and hypocritical attitudes would be exposed and dealt firmly with!

    Now, that being said, I understand the Merits of the Argument you make. Certainly, it is more likely that the “…anarchic, disorderly, chaotic, blasphemous, anti-authoritarian and even treasonous…” thought process of the Civilian Population is likely to fall victim to the “…linear, rational, disciplined, authority-respecting and strategic modes of reasoning.” Certainly, you must be correct in that fear, or otherwise you would not argue this so strongly! On the other hand, could not the Young Minds of these people intending to eventually become leaders of tomorrow’s military benefit from the Salt that people such as yourself could add? I would even go so far as to suggest that you might offer insights that go beyond even what you intend from the dynamic of close interaction with these inquisitive minds. While, arguably, not all of that may serve them well, I am of the opinion that more information and even emotional input is beneficial in making sound judgment calls and choices. Absent an understanding of the “other side” often leads to a flat and faulted, incomplete at best, decision. If all parts are carefully considered, it still remains unlikely that all parties will be satisfied, but it is more likely that they will feel like they have been heard and at least somewhat understood. Sometimes, such validation is as satisfying as getting your own way completely.

    Ultimately, this choice will be made. No matter how the choice is made, there will be good points and bad points. Costs are never eliminated. One such cost to consider is the costs that are likely to be imposed under the Solomon Amendment. Will doing without all that Federal Money really make Columbia better? I, for one, think the reduction in the money will lead to Columbia becoming more elitist and out of touch with Americans from poor and even moderate backgrounds. But that is yet to be determined, I guess. And yes, the Secretary of Defense does not need to pull that money – there is no mandate to do so. However, I expect at some point, a Secretary of Defense will do so. It is only a matter of time. Maybe Harvard chose not to fight such a fight for a reason. Maybe Columbia has Lawyers with such impeccable logic and semantic skills that they could not fail to topple such a Law. I hope to see an example of such a person before I take such a risk, however, and as of yet, I think the Dean has you beat, and he seems to be on the other side of this!

  13. Jane – good questions. The University Senate was given a document last Friday prepared by the Task Force looking into this issue. It summarized the ROTC programs at our peer schools. Some allowed ROTC on campus in the ways you describe above, some did not. The University can negotiate whatever terms for ROTC presence it sees fit, from full inclusion, course credit, faculty appointments to treating it like an extra-curricular activity. I would not oppose the formation of a ROTC program as part of Columbia’s non-credit activities – in fact, that’s sort of what we have now. It’s the curricular part that I find troubling.

  14. Professor Franke,

    In answering Jane, you do point out one thing, albeit not intentionally so, I am quite sure. ROTC has become stigmatized in your view. “Go to the back of the bus, you are not good enough to sit up here” is not just figuratively what you are saying. You are outright stating that any sort of credit for studies in military history, philosophy courses on morality and war, leadership from the military perspective and changing norms within society, (and the list quite literally goes on and on) is unworthy of any legitimate curricular recognition because of the color of clothes that the students choose to wear, (in your limited point of view) for goodness sake! The opinion is valid for you to have. Opinions need no basis in fact. However, pushing opinion to the point of trying to make it policy is quite another matter. Tell me how such an attitude should mesh up with DOMA, for an example. I would like to understand why exclusion of LGBT relationships under law is wrong, but exclusion of this sort for ROTC is right. I see LGBT relationships as different from Heterosexual Relationships, but the idea that we cannot treat them differently is YOUR idea, I might remind you, argued in front of students. I don’t disagree with that idea as completely as you (or other professors) may think, despite what you hear me saying from time to time. I think that we can treat Relationships between LGBT people exactly the same. I just don’t think that we MUST. It is an esoteric point, but don’t try and hide behind a smoke screen trying to obscure this. Even a simple mind can figure this out.

    If you want to legitimize my point of view in this matter, (DOMA vs. the LGBT community) to support your point of view on ROTC, feel free to do so. Do not make the assumption that trying to talk out of both sides of your mouth is going to go un-noticed, however. I know that there are plenty of bright minds out there soaking this up. Granted, most of them coming to your blog here, even if against your intentions, are not quite as free thinking as the Student Population in general. Yet Columbia, despite some rather stiff Politically Correct Group Think Culture fighting to maintain lock step control on the thoughts of all of us, is not absent anyone willing to question authority figures, which most certainly you are. But we question. Sometimes to your face, and sometimes, lacking the common courtesy of a response, (civil or not) we question behind your back. But the questions are asked, rest assured. You could choose a little more wisely which questions to leave unanswered and which questions to be beneath the dignity you professionally argue is due some others. Demanding dignity for others while arguing against such dignified treatment in cases such as ROTC rings somewhat wrong. Disparaging stigma hurts, does it not? Why can you, of all people, fail to understand this and deliberately hurt people that way? Are you so truely utterly calloused and uncaring? Has your own suffering, even if more for others you care about, left you with no capacity to care beyond your own particular brand of pain?

    Our differences are what make life interesting, do you not agree? Or would you advocate that the cookie cutter, everyone is the same society or something like what can be seen in Orwellian 1984 Society is somehow better? In that society, how well would LGBT people eventually do? Probably about as well as ROTC Cadets, I would imagine. And if it closer to 1984 than you want it to be, ROTC might flourish, while LGBT is trodden down even more than it is now. Be careful what you ask for. You just might get it!

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