Trustees | Intellectual Diversity

ROTC Seeks to Expand on Campuses, and Colleges Cope With a Conflict

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  October 31, 2008 by Reeves Wiedeman

Three days a week, Sean Ashby wakes up well before dawn at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. He and about 25 other students pile into car pools heading north on I-95, past Camden Yards and downtown Baltimore, arriving at the Johns Hopkins University for ROTC training by 6 a.m. sharp.

That’s an hour not seen by many college students. But Mr. Ashby gets up because he doesn’t want a desk job; because working for the CIA and FBI has always interested him; because he “wanted to see and do crazy, awesome things.”

Each of the Baltimore County cadets has his or her own reasons for making the drive across Baltimore to join the Blue Jay Battalion at Johns Hopkins for training: the scholarships, because Dad did it, because “my roommate told me to.” But one constant remains: The U.S. Army wants them, and it needs more of them.

With its forces stretched thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army is looking to significantly expand the number of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs on college campuses for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which led the Army to close more than 80 programs. At UMBC and other colleges that have applied for a program, the effort is being celebrated by cadets but criticized by faculty members and students who oppose the military’s exclusion of openly gay service members.

The Army’s expansion effort stems from the Pentagon’s request for the officer-training corps to produce 4,500 second lieutenants each year, a 15-percent increase over its annual quota four years ago. That target will rise to 5,350 in 2011. This year, ROTC produced 4,300 lieutenants, more than in 2007 but still short of its quota.

That shortfall has the training corps looking for ways to produce more lieutenants, including adding 15 to 20 campus units to the 273 it already runs, according to Paul N. Kotakis, an Army spokesman. Naval ROTC, which includes the Marine Corps, is also looking to expand and has identified several universities where it may add programs.

“We’re all familiar with Hollywood’s idea of the Army: Pearl Harbor gets bombed, you go to basic training, then the next week you’re storming the beaches of Normandy,” said Mr. Kotakis. “But ROTC is fundamentally predicated on a four-year college experience. Whenever the Army gets an increased mission like that, we can’t turn the numbers around immediately.”

Awaiting a Response

The Army contacted Baltimore County in April about adding a program, and the university submitted its application in late May. It is awaiting the Army’s response, but university officials are optimistic. They have already renovated and opened a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps office in a house on the campus.

“We were told our institution looked ideal, thanks to the demographics, location, and what seemed like apparent interest from students,” said Mark Terranova, assistant to the university’s president. “On our end, we want to make things easier on students who want to pursue ROTC.”

For now, Baltimore County is one of 1,260 “satellite” ROTC campuses scattered across the country, whose students commute to other campuses for training. Its cadets gather every Thursday at 3:30 p.m. for “lab train ing” in a two-story building squeezed between the football and lacrosse fields on the Johns Hopkins campus. In a room resembling a high-school gymnasium, students from Baltimore County, Stevenson University, and several other area institutions line up, then march past a 37-foot-tall rappelling wall adorned with “ARMY” in giant yellow letters to a small field for training exercises. Today they are working on “individual movement and technique”: high crawling, low crawling, and the “buddy fire team.”

In civilian terms? “They’re learning to work in a team,” says Mr. Ashby, a senior political-science major at Baltimore County and the battalion’s commander.

For the Johns Hopkins cadets, the end of training means a short walk to a dining hall or home for dinner. For the Baltimore County cadets, it means up to an hourlong trip through rush-hour traffic, just one problem they face without an on-campus program.

“It hits you once on the way over here when … you have to plan your car ride and pay for gas, and then it hits you again when you have to feed the meter for the four hours you’re here,” says Dan Ingram, a senior cadet at Baltimore County. “The money adds up when you realize you’ve spent 50 bucks on parking.”

Cadets’ Challenges

Cadets at UMBC and the other satellite campuses face other challenges, too. Many take extra credit hours because their ROTC credits don’t count toward graduation. They have to schedule classes around travel time, and many say they miss out on activities at their home campus. At a 2007 White House commissioning ceremony for graduating cadets, President Bush bemoaned the “split existence” of ROTC cadets who live on separate campuses.

Such hassles are one reason Baltimore County and other institutions are seeking programs of their own. Not only will current cadets benefit, but administrators believe the greater convenience might encourage more students to participate, and thus qualify for the Army’s merit-based scholarships. An on-campus program could also help recruitment.

“Having a program on campus puts us in a more attractive, more appealing light,” said Yvette Mozie-Ross, assistant provost for enrollment management at Baltimore County. “The ROTC table is always crowded at our open houses, but it’s always awkward trying to explain these partnerships to prospective students. It would be nice to be able to say we have a program on campus.”

But colleges have costs to consider as well. Although contracts differ from college to college, agreements between the Army and host colleges specify arrangements for who will pay for a variety of items, including faculty and buildings, Internet access, parking permits, and gym passes. Towson University, another Baltimore-area institution, was being considered for a host site but pulled its application because it could not provide the administrative personnel requested by the Army.

‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Other colleges have faced opposition from students opposed to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, a 15-year-old federal statute that requires the military to discharge soldiers if they are open about being gay.

Paula McCusker, a Baltimore County junior majoring in engineering, says military recruiters hounded her after she scored well on a military aptitude examination required by her high school. When she told each recruiter that she couldn’t enlist, they asked, “Why?”

“Well, if you don’t ask me, I won’t tell you,” she told the recruiters, who she says usually seemed embarrassed or hung up.

Although most opposition to ROTC on college campuses originally sprang from antiwar sentiment during the Vietnam War, when several universities ended their programs, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy produced fresh bans at colleges.

Opponents say the law violates colleges’ nondiscrimination policies and argue that allowing ROTC on campuses creates an uncomfortable environment for gay students. Before deciding to submit its application, Baltimore County held several open forums for opponents to air their concerns.

“One of the things you get used to at a school like UMBC is that nobody has the right to discriminate against you,” Michelle Danaher, a senior math major at Baltimore County, said in an interview. “To say that’s only going to be true on 95 percent of the campus, and now there’s going to be this group of people that can discriminate against you, to me that’s really disappointing.”

Baltimore County is not alone in facing this issue. After John McCain and Barack Obama called for an end to bans on the officer-training corps at a panel at Columbia University last month, Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia’s president, expressed his continued opposition to ROTC based on the military’s policy toward gay service members.

On the heels of that panel, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni sent a letter to Columbia and six other institutions urging them to lift their bans. Columbia is one of four Ivy League schools that do not allow ROTC, though students can ride the subway to an Army ROTC program at Fordham University.

The Columbia University Senate voted down a proposal to allow Army ROTC in 2005, but it may consider a Naval ROTC program. A survey to gauge student opinion on the issue is planned for next month.

Coping With a Conflict

Colleges with programs have found different ways to address the conflict between “don’t ask, don’t tell” and their own antidiscrimination policies. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology promises to replace any scholarships a ROTC student loses due to the policy, while the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill says its nondiscrimination policy does not apply to its relationship with outside organizations such as ROTC.

At Baltimore County, President Freeman A. Hrabowski III says he wants to hold student forums and find ways to deal with concerns over the policy, rather than simply rejecting it. He has told opponents of ROTC that he will include a statement in the university’s ROTC agreement expressing the school’s opposition to “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“One thing we asked ourselves was, ‘Do we have a public responsibility to provide these opportunities?'” said Mr. Terranova. “Ultimately it came down to, ‘Let’s not deny opportunities for students while we fight for this greater issue of diversity.'”

It is possible that the problem could solve itself: Mr. Obama has said he would repeal the statute if he were elected president (Mr. McCain supports the policy), and a bill was introduced last year in the U.S. House of Representatives to do just that. But for now the two sides remain at loggerheads, though both express empathy for the opposition.

“It’s not that we don’t want the cadets on campus,” said Ms. McCusker. “It’s that we don’t want ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ on campus.”

The cadets, who get riled up discussing the problems they face without an on-campus program, become conciliatory when ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ comes up.

“I can see it from their angle,” said Mr. Ingram, the cadet at Baltimore County. “If I had beliefs that another group discriminated against, I might think twice about wanting them on campus.”

Recognizing the opposition they face, many campaigns to bring ROTC back to Columbia, Harvard, and other institutions have concentrated on narrower goals, like providing transportation for cadets.

The Army, meanwhile, is focusing its efforts on colleges where demand for ROTC is the greatest. In cases where student interest has been limited and programs already exist in the area—as at both Columbia and Harvard—the Army might not want to add programs.

“The optimum approach is to add new programs, but we have to use our resources efficiently,” said Mr. Kotakis. “We have to ask, do we put more resources into new campuses? Or do we invest more in our existing units?”

Regardless, the Army’s need for more qualified officers will very likely remain constant, if not increase. That means the Army will continue seeking to expand ROTC by adding more college officer-training programs.

For now, though, Sean Ashby will keep driving past Camden Yards each week.

“I love Hopkins,” he says, turning his uniform sleeve to point to his battalion’s patch. “But it would be nice to have a UMBC patch.”


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