Stanford Debates: Reinstate ROTC?
Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets practice battlefield tactics in Princeton, N.J. (File photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
You wouldn’t necessarily know it walking around campus, but there’s a major debate going on at Stanford University, and at a few other so-called elite colleges around the country. The controversy is over whether to allow ROTC, or Reserve Officers Training Corps, back on campus as a full-fledged academic department. And it’s a long-running battle.
It was more than 40 years ago — during the Vietnam War — that activists made ROTC a target of their anti-war demonstrations. At Stanford, they burned down the ROTC building. In addition to voicing anti-military sentiments, professors and students argued that military science, as it was called, had no place in an academic setting. Barton Bernstein, a history professor at Stanford who was active in the ’60s, and still is, put it this way:
“It was an academic anomaly, if not an abomination. The faculty for ROTC were not chosen by the university; they often were dubiously competent at best; the curriculum was profoundly anti-intellectual and bordered upon the insipid, and the textbooks were often wretched.”
Those arguments won the day in 1969, and ever since, Stanford students who wanted to enroll in ROTC had to go to other campuses for their training. Seven Stanford students in Army ROTC take their military lessons and drill at Santa Clara University, 17 miles away.
In mid-April, Stanford students voted in a non-binding election: 44 percent wanted to bring ROTC back on campus, 17 percent did not, and 39 percent abstained, indicating that that because the military does not allow transgender individuals in the ranks, the ROTC issue should not even be put before a vote.
While the old arguments against ROTC are still cited by Bernstein (and disputed by others), times have changed. Those in favor of the ROTC programs argue that virulent anti-military feelings are not a big part of today’s culture. And one major issue has changed, too. Don’t ask, don’t tell, the 1993 policy that kept openly gay men and women out of the service, is on its way out. Gays and lesbians charged the policy was discriminatory, and it was cited, long after the Vietnam War, as a reason that universities didn’t welcome ROTC back. Now, however, Congress and the president have repealed DADT, opening the door for universities to reconsider.
Harvard and Columbia have voted to reinstate ROTC. But Stanford is one of a few other private schools still talking it through. Public universities, home to some of the fiercest actions in the ’60s and ’70s, mostly kept ROTC on campus, since they would lose federal funding if they dumped it.
At Stanford, well-known history professor David Kennedy and former Secretary of Defense William Perry teamed up to advocate for ROTC’s return. They, like current Secretary Robert Gates, argue that it’s important for elite schools to be involved in the military. In a speech at Duke University, Gates put it this way: “For a growing number of Americans service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.”
I talked with Perry and Stanford student representatives for a story that airs on Monday’s NewsHour broadcast:
Sam Windly of Say No to War, Autumn Carter, editor of the Stanford Review, Leanna Keys of Stanford Students for Queer Liberation, and Angelina Cardona, president of the Associated Students of Stanford University also discussed the campus controversy: