Columbia Wrestles With Absence Of ROTC On Campus

This story was written by Mary Kohlmann, Columbia Daily Spectator
Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the Reserve Officer Training Corps's removal from the Columbia campus. But in a wartime election season rife with debate, some wonder whether that decision will hold.

In the weeks leading up to Super Tuesday, presidential candidates weighed in on the ROTC policy dispute, which could bring back military presence to the University.

During a Jan. 15 debate, NBC moderator Tim Russert asked the Democratic presidential candidates whether they would "vigorously enforce" the Solomon Amendment, which allows the government to revoke its funding from any university that fails to, in Russert's words, "provide space for military recruiters or provide a ROTC program for its students."

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, CC '83, agreed that they would enforce the law. Republican candidate John McCain, whose daughter graduated from Columbia in 2006, has also publicly criticized the program's absence from campus.

Some students took the debaters' remarks with a grain of salt.

"I think it was a good stand, but I guess they were saying what they thought people wanted to hear," Elizabeth Feldmeier, CC '09 and a ROTC cadet, said.

Michael Segal, MD '83, Ph.D '82, and webmaster of the multi-school umbrella organization Advocates for ROTC, pointed out that both moderator and candidates avoided directly addressing the issue around which most of the current controversy is focused.

"It would have been much more meaningful if they had been asked what they would do about ROTC given the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy currently in place," Segal said.

The debate surrounding ROTC's place on campus has been labyrinthine. In May 1969, in the wake of the fervent anti-war protests of 1968, Columbia's Navy ROTC was, to quote the University's Web site, "dissolved." Despite the continued presence of cadets and a concerted effort to bring it back on campus in 2005, ROTC has remained absent ever since.

While the initial expulsion was based on anti-Vietnam War sentiment, today's activists are more likely to say that the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy on homosexuality violates Columbia's stance against discriminatory employers.

"There was a point in the '90s when the issue was clearly handed over from the anti-military folks to the anti-discrimination folks," Segal said.

Still, war remains a major factor in student complaints.

"We ought to be taking a stand against it in any way we can," said Columbia Coalition Against the War leader David Judd, CC '08. Judd strongly opposes the return of ROTC to campus.

In the midst of controversy, cadet life continues. The five Columbia students enrolled in the Army ROTC this year drill at nearby Fordham University, while others participate in an Air Force unit at Manhattan College.

"It's not an ideal situation," Army cadet Feldmeier said of the commute to exercises that sometimes begin at 7 a.m. "I have to take the subway there three days a week."

But while Feldmeier believes a Columbia ROTC unit "would be really great for me personally," she doesn't see the lack of one as a dearth on campus, either. "I'm not really that interested in recruiting people to the Army," she said.

Segal has a similar goal in mind. "The main thing in the short run is to ... build up the number of students doing ROTC, to put a real human face on what having ROTC students on campus is like," he said.

"Most people just have a general uncertainty about the ROTC because it's not something they're familiar with but they're not hostile to it," Feldmeier said.

But even if efforts to return ROTC to campus were to accelerate under the next resident of the Oval Office, theprocess would likely be a slow one.

"There's this perception that the military is pushing to come to Columbia, or if not, would be very glad to come," Segal said.

The reality might be quite different, according to the results of theoretical inquiries he said he made a few years ago among relevant officials.

"The answer we got back was that even if Columbia asked for a full ROTC program, it would be a long process," Segal said. "Basically, one would have to plead with the military, 'Please take us seriously -- we want to serve.'"
© 2008 Columbia Daily Spectator via U-WIRE