With Congress’s repeal late last year of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the chief obstacle keeping the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program off of Harvard’s campus was removed. On March 4 of this year, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust signed an agreement with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to formally re-establish the Naval ROTC’s presence on campus, presumably paving the way for agreements with the ROTC programs of the other branches of America’s armed services in the near future.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a discriminatory and unfair policy whose repeal should be praised. There are still relevant issues that need to be addressed immediately, such as the United States military’s refusal to allow transgender people to serve. Nonetheless, the American military and the American people are now better off for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s repeal. But why has Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell been the only thing keeping the military off Harvard’s campus? Who decided that this one policy was the only thing keeping ROTC away? Certainly, it served as an incentive to get Congress to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But Harvard was using Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell merely as an excuse to avoid confronting the real issues informing Harvard’s longstanding and valid opposition to ROTC.
When Harvard objected to ROTC’s presence on its campus during the Vietnam War, it was not because of a discriminatory policy toward homosexuals, but rather because its role had changed from a means of ensuring the availability a large body of reserve soldiers in the event of war to a vocational program to train career officers. As the Crimson wrote in 1969: “The basic fact behind the growing opposition to ROTC is the increasingly inescapable realization that ROTC now wants to recruit college students for mainly military careers. The implication of this is that the presence of ROTC can no longer be justified by the old arguments about the need to maintain a civilian army. As the emphasis of ROTC shifts from training reserves to recruiting career officers, the view that ROTC ‘civilianizes’ the military–the rationale by which educators have long justified their uneasy relationship with the armed service–becomes untenable.”
While Harvard gave Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell as its reason for de-funding their ROTC program program entirely in 1995, the rationale cited in 1969 for keeping ROTC off campus is no less valid today than it was during the Vietnam War. Though it is unlikely that Harvard will see the protests, riots, and building occupations of the late 1960s again, there is still strong opposition to ROTC’s having more than an extra-curricular role in campus life. And as in the 1960s, ROTC is still a vocational program that gives credit for military training; this does not have a place on Harvard’s campus. Perhaps an alternative to the complete reacceptance of the ROTC program could be instead giving it extra-curricular status, though it is highly unlikely that this remedy would be acceptable to ROTC, particularly as ROTC objected to this alternative forty years ago.
This stance does not aim to disparage the military or its importance to our nation and its security in any way. Persisting discriminatory policies and questionable foreign interventions aside, every American owes an enormous debt to our servicemen and -women in every branch of the military. But while we should certainly accord our military the respect and gratitude it deserves, and while we should continue to laud its progress (however slow) toward equal rights and the repeal of discriminatory policies, Harvard should not feel as though it is under any type of obligation to allow ROTC to return to its campus. And, because a military presence on campus does not further the university’s educational mission—in fact, the military’s presence is felt by many to be detrimental to the educational mission—Harvard should not allow ROTC to return to campus. Moreover, the idea that Harvard will use its own resources to support ROTC, when the American military already has ample funds of its own, and when Harvard could better devote its resources toward its workers’ salaries and its building projects in Allston, is simply unacceptable.
Harvard certainly has the right to allow ROTC to return to campus. ROTC is a program that benefits the students that participate in it and our nation as a whole, and the decision to welcome ROTC back is ultimately Harvard’s prerogative. But allowing ROTC to return to campus represents a betrayal of the campus’ progress of the past forty years, even if it does at the same time represent a recognition of the university’s appreciation for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.