When the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) issued a letter to the boards of Yale and six other top-tier universities—Brown, Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, Stanford, and Tufts—urging them to reinstate the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), it rekindled a debate that dates back to the ’60s: Should Yale end its de facto ban on ROTC?
According to an e-mail from president Anne Neal, ACTA is a non-partisan, non-profit organization whose “mission is to advance academic freedom, academic excellence, and accountability in higher education by working with trustees, alumni, donors, and other leaders in the field.” Within that network of over 5,000 trustees and 10,000 alumni, “Yale is one of the best-represented institutions.”
When asked about the motivations behind ACTA’s letter, Neal criticized Yale’s unreceptive attitude toward the ROTC, as well as military recruiters in general. “What ACTA favors is the right of students—in and out of the Ivy League—to explore whatever careers they wish,” said Neal. “We find it neither logical nor publicly-minded for universities like [Yale] to deny students the opportunity to do that.”
Separate from the ACTA’s lobbying, the controversy over ROTC was catapulted into the national spotlight on the seventh anniversary of 9/11, when presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama met at Columbia University for a ServiceNation forum on volunteerism. Both candidates decried the lack of an ROTC detachment at Columbia and elsewhere, although Obama differed from McCain in advocating the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT), the military’s policy of allowing only those who are not openly homosexual to enlist.
As a result of those comments and the ensuing media maelstrom, Columbia has borne most of the backlash from those—like ACTA and the editorial staffs at the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post—who oppose the relegation of ROTC to the extracurricular realm. In an e-mail to the entire Columbia community, President Lee Bollinger condemned DADT as “improper discrimination and humiliation” and cited a 2005 vote by the University Senate which upheld the ban. However, Bollinger neglected to mention a 2003 referendum on the part of undergraduates, almost a 2-to-1 majority of whom favored ROTC’s return.
Such attention has rapidly rippled outward from Columbia to other schools without ROTC presence. In the aforementioned Washington Post editorial [“ROTC and the Ivies,” Editorial Staff, 9/13/2008], it was argued that, “Among other benefits, the restoration of ROTC at the Ivies might help reconnect two important American subcultures—elite academia and the military officer corps—that have grown apart.”
Prior to expelling ROTC in 1969, Yale was renowned for its commitment and contributions to the armed forces. ROTC was founded here in 1917, just one year after the National Defense Act of 1916 created the program. Yale was even among the first schools to boast a naval branch, starting in 1926. Throughout World War II, Yale was virtually transformed into a military camp, operating year-round and awarding diplomas in just three years. It was then-President Charles Seymour, YC 1908 GRD 1911, who patriotically proclaimed, “The justification of a university is to be found in the service which it gives to the nation.”
However, this prevailing veneration for the military faded during the Vietnam War, when radicalism among students and elitism among faculty accounted for the decision to eliminate academic credit for ROTC, with all of the operating costs shifting to the federal government.
With no ROTC detachment on campus, Yalies interested in pursuing the program must do so elsewhere. Yale employs its own ROTC adviser, Jerry Hill, whose primary duties include publicizing opportunities such as the Air Force Express Scholarship, answering about two to three questions monthly from prospective participants, organizing the annual Veterans’ Day festivities, and overseeing “logistics, making sure students have transportation to and from their drills and ROTC classes each week.”
Typically, according to Hill, there are as many as a half-dozen cadets each year, but there are only three from Yale this year: Taylor Giffen, DC ’09, Anthony Runco, ES ’11, and John Swisher, PC ’11. All three are in the Air Force ROTC, which entails a 90-minute, 70-mile commute to the University of Connecticut in Storrs every Thursday afternoon. Were they in the Army ROTC instead, their commute to Sacred Heart University in Fairfield would be shorter, but three times per week. There is no nearby option for the Navy, whose nearest locations are all out of state.
Both Giffen and Runco learned about ROTC through their respective high schools, and neither feels at a disadvantage in spite of the sacrifices required of them at Yale.
According to Giffen, who is already contracted as a 2nd Lieutenant: “ROTC is still a viable and lucrative option…I have never experienced any hostility against the military here at Yale.”
“The fact that Yale may not be as receptive to ROTC as some other schools never even came into the equation,” Runco said. “To my initial surprise, in fact, Yale picks up the bill every time I rent a car to go to UConn. This amounts to thousands of dollars a year that the University spends for transportation on me alone, a gesture for which I am truly grateful.”
Not only are ROTC cadets from Yale “as well-received as they could be,” according to Hill, but they are also “held at very high esteem up at UConn.” In fact, Robert Berschinski, MC ’02 GRD ’08, was named the Air Force ROTC’s top cadet nationwide in 2001, while Chris Day, JE ’07, was a platoon leader in the U.S. Infantry Army and just returned from a deployment in Iraq.
Unlike the current cadets, Day, in an e-mail, was not as forgiving of Yale’s stance on ROTC. “Yale’s students deserve to serve, and not be so inconvenienced that it makes doing so a chore,” wrote Day. “Yale’s not awarding credit for ROTC classes and actively banning ROTC means that cadets are marginalized.”
Speaking about the current military options available at Yale, Neal said: “Elite universities like Yale are supposed to serve an important public purpose: educating the leaders of tomorrow. We need well-educated leaders in the military. Yale has two choices: The first is to do the right thing now; that is what we have urged the Corporation to do. The second is to wait until the public becomes so displeased that Yale’s federal dollars are imperiled.”
A recent Yale graduate who now works for ACTA, Noah Mamis, BR ’08, elaborated: “As ACTA’s letter to the Corporation points out, neither students nor the military benefit when they are insulated from each other, but that is the state of affairs Yale’s current stance has produced.”
Neal subsequently said that it would be more worthwhile for Yale to lobby Congress for the revocation of DADT, rather than “punish its students” by shunning the military—upon which the policy was imposed, she noted—altogether.
“The simple fact is that the best way to change an institution is from within, and having more well-educated Elis in the Armed Forces can only have a positive impact, if not on the actual support for ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ amongst service members, then at the very least on the discourse going on between soldiers,” said Day.
As for the likelihood of ROTC opening another detachment at Yale, even if the Administration were to lift the present ban, almost no one is optimistic. There probably isn’t a critical mass, or as Hill put it, “enough students at Yale, or in the surrounding area, to support a unit.”
In fact, most Yalies seem apathetic to the military and unaware of the fact that ROTC is even an option for students. For Giffen, this comes out in the form of comments from his classmates: “When I put on my uniform heading up to UConn on Thursdays, I have more people ask if I am in a play than if I am in the military.”
Even Neal conceded that “whether the military establishes an ROTC unit at Yale is beyond anyone else’s control,” since it has ultimate say over where new detachments will be opened, ever-increasingly in the South and away from urban hubs.
Yet, with a recession underway, perhaps Yale students might soon be considering a military career. As Giffen put it, “I know there are Yalies out there like me who have tried finance and realized they were not put on this planet to fly a desk. The opportunity for adventure does exist. It is true that the military doesn’t pay as well as Goldman Sachs, but who needs to buy a Ferrari when Uncle Sam gives you an F-22?”