ROTC: The Real Issue

March 5, 2011

As widely reported in the press, Harvard University will reinstate an ROTC Program at the university.  “Harvard President Drew Faust and U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus will sign an agreement giving “full and formal recognition” to a Navy ROTC program later this year, the Cambridge, Mass., university said in a statement.”

Harvard has not recognized an ROTC Program since 1970, the height of the Vietnam War, when sentiments against the military ran high on many U.S. campuses.  In recent years, the issue at Harvard was the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, because it discriminated against homosexuals, and Harvard (as many — most?) universities today formally includes sexual orientation in its non-discrimination statement.  So long as the military would not cease discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, Harvard argued, it could not recognize ROTC.

Sexual orientation wasn’t the issue in 1970, however.  And whatever one makes of the thoughtfulness of the consideration of ROTC Programs back at the time of Vietnam, it’s worth focusing on the real issue.

Arguably, so long as we have a standing army, having officers drawn from the educated population at large, and educated alongside other students — rather than all educated at the insular service academies — is a good thing.  If we are going to have a standing army, the argument goes, we should have a citizen army, not a wholly separate warrior class.

The difficult question has to do with who gives credit for ROTC courses.  ROTC isn’t just a student activity.  Accepting an ROTC chapter isn’t like accepting a Hillel or Newman program on campus: space and appreciative recognition for students who participate in extra-curricular activities.  ROTC is an educational program in which courses are taken and credits are earned.  There is an issue about whether ROTC broadly accepts the basic commitments of a university — like full compliance with a non-discrimination statement.  But there are also, and just as important, issues around what the credentials are of those who teach ROTC courses, who hires and evaluates them, who approves the courses for which credit is given.  Will these matters be wholly in the hands of Harvard University, to make decisions through its authoritative governance procedures?  Or will there be (as there often was at the time ROTC became an issue on many campuses back during the Vietnam War) a shared governance arrangement where the military has a share in making the decisions about faculty appointments and approval of curriculum.

A shared governance situation isn’t completely out of bounds by my way of thinking, even if the governance is shared with an organization whose fundamental mission is not education.  The U.S. military has shown itself to be an organization that can sponsor and deliver world-class education.  But I would want to know (and if I were a member of the Harvard faculty I would want to know) what are the terms of the shared governance arrangement?  How can we be assured that the educational integrity of the university is respected?

None of the reporting I have seen on the story says anything about that.  I’ll keep looking.  Let me know if you see anything that addresses the governance or quality assurance aspects of the new arrangements at Harvard.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to ROTC: The Real Issue

  1. Pingback: Yale – ROTC Agreement | The Observatory

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