Columbia University’s ROTC Shame

Students read Pericles on the virtue of citizen-soldiers. Too bad the college doesn't encourage that virtue in practice.
WALL STREET JOURNAL   |  March 10, 2011 by Jacques Barzun

In the funeral oration of Pericles, still required reading in the renowned Core Curriculum of Columbia College, the Athenian leader reminds his embattled people that “when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit.” Do Columbia’s administrators and trustees believe that the students in the college should live by the values they are required to learn?

In 1969, spurred by antiwar student riots, the university cancelled its Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, which had its roots in the Columbia Midshipmen’s School that trained over 23,000 naval officers in World War II. By the 1990s, after the fervor around the Vietnam War had subsided, university officials justified keeping ROTC off campus because of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

With Congress having repealed that edict last year, Columbia faculty have raised new arguments against ROTC. Some faculty members have recently circulated a petition that the military should remain banned because it continues to be a “discriminatory institution” on the basis of “many reasons from physical disability to age.” The basketball team discriminates too.

The petition also vaguely warns that a few students wearing uniforms around campus would be a harbinger of “militarization.” They ignore the Eisenhower Leadership Development Program, a joint endeavor with West Point that sends dozens of commissioned and uniformed officers each year to Columbia’s sacrosanct campus. They also ignore Columbia’s law and medical schools, which commission students directly into the Armed Forces Judge Advocate General’s Corps as well as medical residencies, and count among their faculties several active-duty military officers.

In a recent poll, 60% of Columbia students supported ROTC’s return to campus. But military engagement is a serious issue that should not be subjected to popular referendum.

After the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in October, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni wrote to Columbia’s Board of Trustees asking them “to go on record now, welcoming this worthy service back to campus, since you have the ultimate oversight of matters concerning student life and welfare.” As ACTA President Anne Neal has said, “This is not an excessive or unreasonable request. All we are asking is that institutional leaders—the trustees who are legally responsible for their institutions’ financial and academic health—should plan to make on-campus ROTC a reality.”

In the midst of this debate, Columbia’s 10 or so ROTC cadets still rise daily at the crack of dawn, take a 75-minute subway ride, and arrive at Fordham University for physical training at 6 a.m.

The armed forces have drawn some of their most celebrated leaders from Columbia. Not one but four commanders in chief, including the incumbent, studied or worked there. Educating citizen-soldiers is necessary not only for the vigor of our armed forces, but for the vitality of our universities and our republic.

Pericles concluded his remarks in ancient Athens by reminding his people that in detailing the merits of their city-state (in contrast to the characteristics of neighboring Sparta) “we are contending for a higher prize than those who enjoy none of these privileges.” A citizenry’s willingness to serve in its defense makes a “government that does not copy our neighbors, but is an example to them.” Most will choose not to answer the call—that is acceptable, the natural result of relying on an all-volunteer military. What is not acceptable is denying the army the opportunity to even make that call.

Columbia’s president and trustees must act to restore the university’s long-estranged relationship with the armed forces.

Mr. Barzun is a former provost and professor of history at Columbia University. A 1927 graduate of Columbia College, he is the author or editor of over 30 books. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003 and the National Humanities Medal in 2010.


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