How Serious is Obama about ROTC on Elite Campuses?

Over at CNAS, Andrew Exum has a somewhat different take on President Obama's ROTC shout-out in the State of the Union speech. He writes:

there is one huge problem with this. It's easy to demonize the "elite" universities for not having more ROTC programs, but the reality is that the U.S. military has been the one most responsible for divesting from ROTC programs in the northeastern United States. It's hardly the fault of Columbia University that the U.S. Army has only two ROTC programs to serve the eight million residents and 605,000 university students of New York City. And it's not the University of Chicago's fault that the entire city of Chicago has one ROTC program while the state of Alabama has ten. The U.S. military made a conscious decision to cut costs by recruiting and training officers where people were more likely to volunteer.

Andrew is right: It takes two to tango. The military has drawn down its ROTC programs in the Northeast and urban areas largely as a cost-cutting measure, and for that, its civilian leadership shares just as much, if not more, responsibility. If President Obama (and Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen) is serious about restoring ROTC's geographic and cultural balance, he will have to be willing to advocate for--and authorize--the necessary resources. Otherwise, President Obama's support will be nothing more than cheap talk.

The military will have to be ready to make a number of cultural adjustments, as well. Within its ranks, there are some who feel considerable bitterness (some of it justified, some not) toward elite schools and the largely "blue" enclaves in which they are situated; others whose otherwise healthy anti-elitism has caused them to discount the benefits of expanding ROTC's reach, and finally, those who are ambivalent about the value of a liberal arts education to the officer corps. The resulting policy has been to limit ROTC scholarships for students at elite schools, conserving costs but also ensuring limited interest among a student group military leadership considers "short-timers" and whose strengths ("sensitivity, abundant intelligence, and creativity") have been seen as inimical or irrelevant to junior officer development. (All this is recounted in depressing detail in the Army Cadet Command history.)

Both sides--the military and the university--have reason to be wary of one another, but as President Obama said, it's time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. Elite schools like Harvard and Columbia were hardly bit players in creating the current atmosphere of distrust, and so they too have a responsibility to help heal the rift and meet the military halfway. Even if the result is not a new ROTC detachment on campus, there is a lot colleges can do to support their cadets, often at little trouble to themselves. Columbia, for instance, could ease one of the biggest burdens on NYC cadets--their commute--by simply providing them with training space on campus.

The repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell represents an enormous opportunity to repair the breach between the university and the military. However, there is a real danger that momentum will be lost, and the status quo will prevail. Old habits die hard, after all. As the commander-in-chief and the product of two Ivy League schools, President Obama is perfectly poised to ensure this does not happen. He can keep the issue in the news cycle, and more importantly, empower those within both the military and the university who want real change.

Cheryl Miller is the program manager of the American Citizenship Project at AEI.


Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Perry Aston

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