Saturday, October 04, 2008

Response to Columbia President Bollinger's e-mail on ROTC

On September 25, 2008, Bwog, the humorous news blog from Columbia student magazine Blue and White, posted President Bollinger's e-mail about the current NROTC debate. I'm re-posting Bollinger's statement here in full (bold text) with my comments interjected:

Dear fellow member of the Columbia community:

Now that the glow, and the dust, of the nationally broadcast ServiceNation Presidential Forum has settled just a bit, I want to respond to one issue that emerged in the discussions, namely the role of ROTC and the campus.

First, let me say that Columbia University has a long and continuing tradition of making special efforts to open its doors to men and women with military service. For example, there are more than 50 veteran service men and women currently enrolled in our School of General Studies, many of whom have recently returned from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, including 19 incoming students this year alone. The School of General Studies was founded in 1947 largely to enable veterans of War World II to secure an Ivy League education. While we certainly have many veterans attending the University's many graduate schools, we are very proud of the fact that General Studies continues actively to recruit military veterans as part of its mission of providing a Columbia education to a wide diversity of nontraditional undergraduates.

Me: As the student-veteran who started MilVets in 2002, I applaud President Bollinger for recognizing the value of student-veterans at Columbia. I want Columbia to be the leading destination in the country for veterans who seek to earn their college degrees at one of the world's most prestigious academic institutions. The student-veterans community at Columbia, however, only serves to highlight - not excuse - the loss of ROTC as the fundamental military-academic institutional relationship.
Second, as some of you may already know, it is inaccurate to say that Columbia students do not have ROTC available to them. In fact, the University has continued to facilitate the participation of interested students who, like their peers at almost every other New York area college, take part in one of two regional magnet ROTC sites at Fordham and St. John's. These Columbia students receive the same scholarship benefits as those at schools that formally host ROTC.

Me: Although President Bollinger refers to ROTC in general terms, the current student debate of 2008 is focused on Navy ROTC. The NROTC initiative originated from the special interest of SEAS students in Naval officership as an attractive career service option for engineers. Whereas Air Force and Army ROTC on other campuses are marginally available to Columbia students, students currently have no access to Navy ROTC. The absence of Navy ROTC at Columbia is particularly tragic given the storied history of Columbia NROTC, which was interrupted in 1969.

The two ROTC programs with Columbia students are the Air Force ROTC program located at Manhattan College and the Army ROTC program located at Fordham University, both in the Bronx. Columbia students can also enroll in the Marines' Officer Candidate School program. While Class of 2004 graduate and Iraq veteran Josh Arthur commissioned through St. John's Army ROTC in Queens, St. John's ROTC is not a practical option for Columbia students.

Third, it should be noted that, as the Wall Street Journal reported last year, the Department of Defense (DOD) has, for its own fiscal reasons, instituted a policy of aggregating small numbers of ROTC students in urban areas into pooled programs on a limited number of campuses. Currently, five Columbia students are enrolled in the New York regional ROTC program at Fordham. As a result, it is not at all clear whether a change of policy would have any impact on the current practice of having our students travel to one of the other campus ROTC sites, as do virtually all other students at New York area colleges and many others across the nation.

Me: President Bollinger is correct that an invitation from Columbia to the military would not automatically cause the military to place an ROTC program at Columbia. The military, as with any investment of the people's resources, would have to first evaluate Columbia as a prospective ROTC host. However, President Bollinger glosses over that the necessary first step for the military to even consider Columbia as an ROTC host is an invitation from the university. As for the low number of current cadets, President Bollinger should consider whether the rejected exile status of ROTC at Columbia, alienation from absence and missing exposure on campus, distance and poor access in urban terms, and lack of institutional cooperation may be causal factors for the low current number of Columbia students enrolled in ROTC.

While President Bollinger is correct to point out that the use of ROTC 'hubs' is by military design, the Wall Street Journal article he cited, Greg Jaffe's "A Retreat From Big Cities Hurts ROTC Recruiting", actually is critical of the military for the ROTC arrangement used in New York City, which places ROTC on the outskirts of the city's student population centers. It is highly questionable whether the military's current placement of ROTC 'hubs', designed for dispersed suburban and rural regions, adequately serves the students of New York City's dense, concentrated metropolis. Jaffe's article is largely based on the research of Advocates for Columbia ROTC chairman Sean Wilkes, which shows that New York City students are extremely underrepresented in ROTC. It is reasonable to infer that the number of New York students, including Columbia students, currently enrolled in ROTC is artificially depressed, not optimal as implied by President Bollinger. The simple solution to the New York ROTC problem is for the military and New York City universities to work together on co-locating ROTC programs with the city's largest student population centers in Manhattan on campuses such as Columbia.
Finally, in 2005, the University Senate voted overwhelmingly against formally inviting ROTC onto campus. Senate members may have had a variety of reasons for their votes, but the record and official reports make it reasonably clear that the predominant reason was one of adhering to a core principle of the University: that we will not have programs on the campus that discriminate against students on the basis of such categories as race, gender, military veteran status, or sexual orientation. Under the current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy of the Defense Department, openly gay and lesbian students could or would be excluded from participating in ROTC activities. That is inconsistent with the fundamental values of the University. A number of our peer institutions have taken a similar position.

Me: I was MilVets Vice-President when we successfully lobbied for reform of the university's non-discrimination policy in spring 2006. President Bollinger erred when he described "military veteran status" as a protected category in Columbia's non-discrimination policy. In fact, the protected category is "military status", which includes ROTC cadets as well as veterans. One may question whether Columbia's current policy on ROTC, which forces students away from Columbia in order to participate in ROTC, constitutes discrimination. Regarding the 2005 university senate vote, it should be noted that in 2003, students voted 2:1 in favor of ROTC, and in 2005, the university senate's ROTC task force deadlocked 5-5 on the question of whether ROTC should return to Columbia as soon as practical, i.e., the 2006-2007 academic year. Therefore, the 2005 university senate vote may not accurately reflect the entire university community's consensus view on the issue. Be that as it may, the university senate is the deciding authority on Columbia's ROTC policy.

"Don't Ask Don't Tell" is a federal law, not a Department of Defense policy.

Finally, while I applaud responsible legislative efforts to reform a DADT law I disagree with, I find President Bollinger's use of Columbia's non-discrimination policy to excuse the exclusion of a critical segment of society to be irresponsible. The non-discrimination policy is meant to promote openness at Columbia - not close off the university, protect inclusion, and increase organic diversity and engagement on campus, which rightfully includes ROTC along with other institutions, such as a women's college and religions, that may be discriminatory in some aspect. Real openness, inclusion, diversity, and engagement on campus will involve conflict and friction in some instances, but that is the responsible way for Columbia to make a difference. The non-discrimination policy addresses conflicts that arise from inclusion and diversity. However, Columbia's non-discrimination policy becomes corrupted when miscast as a tool for exclusion, segregation, and reduction of the university, as has happened with ROTC at Columbia.
In closing, let me just say that this issue is a serious one deserving of our full and continuous attention. The University, as such, does not take positions on major public issues, except as they pertain directly to our own policies, so that is not the question at stake here. The University must, however, operate according to its basic norms and principles in fulfilling our mission of research, teaching, and public service. Along with everything else, these, too, are open for robust discussion and debate--including how we define, articulate, and apply those principles. We should always welcome discussion, but we should also always try to live up to the ideals we agree on.

Me: The principles I advocate for Columbia, in addition to service and duty, are opportunity, inclusion, engagement, and diversity, which rightfully includes ROTC as an organic, vibrantly engaged citizen of the Columbia campus community. President Bollinger states that "teaching and public service" are part of Columbia's mission. I enthusiastically agree: ROTC at Columbia, as an important military teaching resource and traditional route to civic progressive service, should be encouraged and facilitated by the university, rather than discouraged by Columbia's current bar on ROTC.
Lee C. Bollinger

Me: Thank you for the opportunity to respond, President Bollinger.

Add: 30OCT10 updated version on Securenation.

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