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At Stanford, Debate Brews Over Reviving ROTC Program on Campus

April 25, 2011 at 4:46 PM EDT
Decades after protests surrounding the Vietnam War, some private universities are taking another look at bringing back Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs, but the idea is rekindling some decades-old disputes over military presence on campuses. Spencer Michels reports on how the debate is playing out at Stanford.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, decades after the Vietnam War, some private universities are taking a new look at ROTC.

“NewsHour” correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: If students at Stanford in Palo Alto, California, want to join the Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps, they have to come here to Santa Clara University, 16 miles away, to attend class.

MAN: Carry on. Carry on.

SPENCER MICHELS: Stanford, like many private schools, severed ties with ROTC 40 years ago, pushing it off campus, a situation that could be about to change.

MAN: If you’re going to become an Army officer, you have a type-A personality. So you’re all leaders.

SPENCER MICHELS: In the 1960s, with the Vietnam War raging, students and faculty at universities across the country made campus ROTC programs a target of demonstrations and demands.

The mood was anti-war and anti-military. At Stanford, the ROTC building was burned down.

Ann Thompson is a Stanford senior and a cadet battalion commander in Army ROTC.

ANN THOMPSON, Stanford University: I think that a lot of the reasons that it wasn’t really popular in the Vietnam era aren’t really applicable to the debate today.

JIMMY RUCK, Stanford University: And I think that the general mood on campus is that people are really, really excited to learn more about the military, especially with the just increasing role in foreign relations.

SPENCER MICHELS: The seven Stanford cadets at Santa Clara get no credit for ROTC classes, but most get their tuition paid, plus a monthly stipend and transportation between campuses.

Nationally, nearly 500 ROTC units have cross-town arrangements with nearby universities.

But those arrangements disturb Cadet Jimmy Ruck.

JIMMY RUCK: By not having it on campus, it’s precluded many students from even participating.

MAN: You could set up your assaulting team as one entire squad.

SPENCER MICHELS: One reason Stanford kept military training off campus was the military ban on gays. Then, in 1993, don’t ask, don’t tell barred openly gay people from military service, including ROTC.

Now, with its repeal, though it’s still not implemented, the debate has returned. Harvard was the first private university to reverse its policies that kept ROTC off campus. Stanford and several other private colleges are debating the issues. Public universities, for the most part, did not ban ROTC, fearful of losing federal funds.

At Stanford, the debate has been intense, but, unlike the ’60s, polite. It began when Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who now teaches at Stanford, and others proposed bring ROTC back into the academic fold.

WILLIAM PERRY, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense: Having the mixture of the ROTC students with the rest of the students was a good thing, I thought. It was important for the Stanford students to be exposed to the people who are going to be our future military leaders.

SPENCER MICHELS: With the U.S. military engaged in at least two wars, Perry is concerned that students at elite universities have become isolated from the men and women doing the fighting. Barely a handful of Stanford students have enrolled in the military in the last few years.

WILLIAM PERRY: We want the citizens of the country to have something to say and to participate in their army. And we want not just the citizens from the lower ranks of society, but the citizens who are going to the elite colleges.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite a slight rise in college graduates entering the military recently, the numbers remain low, especially at elite schools like Stanford.

BARTON BERNSTEIN, Stanford University: You have a submarine captain who is being court-martialed because he hit a passenger vessel.

SPENCER MICHELS: History Professor Barton Bernstein, here teaching a seminar on nuclear war, was a young anti-war faculty member in the ’60s who was active in demonstrations against ROTC and is still fighting against it.

BARTON BERNSTEIN: The course of ROTC is still dubious. The faculty would presumably be chosen by the Pentagon and not by the university. And I have moral doubts about the presence of ROTC. It’s primarily teaching people how not simply to lead but how to fight and kill.

SPENCER MICHELS: Education Professor Eamonn Callan is a member of a faculty committee formed to consider these arguments. He wonders if ROTC limits open inquiry and impinges on academic freedom.

EAMONN CALLAN, Stanford University: Suppose you have an instructor who is teaching a course in international relations and decides that, as a class assignment, they will invite students to analyze some documents that have been made available through WikiLeaks. They’re still classified documents. And a student in ROTC might jeopardize their future security clearance if they are required to examine one of those documents as a course requirement.

SPENCER MICHELS: But William Perry is more concerned that the military be able to include in its ranks well-educated Stanford students.

WILLIAM PERRY: They ought to be leaders, contributing to leaders in our military field as well. It’s part of our country. It’s part of our democracy.

SPENCER MICHELS: Professor Bernstein, who was a cadet in the 1950s, says that true leadership is not the kind they teach in ROTC.

BARTON BERNSTEIN: Does leadership means element, column left, column right, shoulder your rifles, parade rest? If that’s leadership, it’s not something I think we should be teaching. If it’s leadership with critical judgment, they’re barred in part because they’re not allowed to criticize the commander in chief.

MAN: Do not debate tactics or techniques with a leader. If you’re asked to give input, then give it. If not, don’t.

SPENCER MICHELS: ROTC classes are at least as rigorous as regular classes, argues the chair of the Department of Military Science at Santa Clara, Lieutenant Colonel John Tao.

LT. COL. JOHN TAO, Santa Clara University: Well, I think it’s probably even more stimulating and more academically challenging than the regular courses.

SPENCER MICHELS: But for an anti-war group putting up posters on campus urging students not to support ROTC, the issue was militarism.

SAM WINDLEY, Stanford Says No to War: It would change the character of the campus, because it would be a U.S. military facility on our campus.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sam Windley, who heads Say No to War, was one of several students of varying opinions we contacted.

Autumn Carter edits the conservative Stanford Review.

AUTUMN CARTER, Stanford Review: The idea that this campus is still stuck in the Vietnam anti-military era is just completely absurd. It is in Stanford’s interests and it is in this country’s interest to put the best into the military, to have them not only educated, but also trained here.

SPENCER MICHELS: Like the anti-war students, gay groups on campus also oppose the return of ROTC. They say the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell didn’t go far enough, since it still allows discrimination against transgender people.

Leanna Keyes is active in Stanford Students for Queer Liberation.

LEANNA KEYES, Stanford Students for Queer Liberation: Because ROTC doesn’t admit transgender students, it doesn’t admit intersex students, it’s perpetuating that discrimination.

SPENCER MICHELS: Student Association president Angelina Cardona thinks the military’s exclusion of transgender people will play a surprisingly important role in Stanford’s decision on ROTC.

ANGELINA CARDONA, Associated Students of Stanford University: I’m personally pro-military. My stepfather is a veteran. I would be thrilled to see the ROTC return to Stanford University, if they were willing to meet us halfway and to include all of our students in their organization in this unique opportunity.

However, as it is now, they do not.

SPENCER MICHELS: Cardona helped prepare a nonbinding online student vote on the ROTC issue. 44 percent voted in favor of ROTC’s return. 17 percent opposed it, and 39 percent abstained.

But it’s the Stanford faculty that will probably have the most influence on the administration’s decision on whether to bring ROTC Back. The faculty committee voted Friday to recommend bringing ROTC back. The full faculty Senate meets Thursday. If it and the university president agree, the Pentagon must then decide whether to establish a Stanford military science department.