How to get more Ivy Leaguers into ROTC
While the bans on the military are mostly gone, the Pentagon needs to loosen its purse strings

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ROTC Ranger Challenge 2008 at the University of Iowa Battalion, Gold and Black Teams.

Article Highlights

  • Yale is the only university that will have ROTC cadets training on campus next fall

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  • ROTC's chief obstacle is not anti-military sentiment, but the Pentagon

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  • There are many low-cost ways for schools to put military service on par with traditional career paths

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One year after Congress voted to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," elite universities such as Harvard, Yale and Columbia have ended Vietnam-era bans on the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) with highly publicized signing ceremonies among senior military officers and university leaders.

Yet for all the fanfare, Yale is the only university that will have cadets training on campus next fall. Columbia and Harvard have restored ties with the Navy, but the new partnerships are limited to a campus office. Stanford has requested its own naval unit (to save their students a 45-minute commute to UC-Berkeley), but the Navy appears unlikely to approve the request.

Stanford's is a telling episode: The chief obstacle to ROTC's expansion today is not antimilitary sentiment but a Pentagon that prefers to allocate its resources to surer recruiting prospects, primarily in the South and the Midwest. Last year the Ivy League had 54 students commissioned through ROTC, or 1% of total commissions, and the Defense Department is reluctant to launch new programs where student interest appears low.

Yet the Pentagon shouldn't be so quick to write off the rewards a renewed relationship with America's top universities could bring. It should remember that ROTC was originally intended to create an officer corps that was truly national, reflecting the nation's talents, social diversity and geographical expanse. Current student interest at elite institutions is low, but that's a product of a 40-year estrangement from ROTC. Each incoming class is an opportunity to reignite student participation.

At Yale, for example, instructor Lt. Molly Crabbe has connected with 15 high-school seniors who are seriously interested in joining ROTC when they matriculate. And retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal's success teaching a leadership seminar at Yale should encourage other battle-hardened officers to consider doing their next tour in the classroom. Harvard has appointed engineering professor Kevin Parker, an Army major who has served three tours in Afghanistan, to lead the committee implementing ROTC initiatives.

Educators know their students and their trade—and they've remained part of the social fabric that ROTC was separated from during the Vietnam War. The military could partner with faculty and administrators to attract students and improve ROTC courses, even designing and co-teaching courses that meet both university standards and military requirements. A few such courses already exist—such as Yale's Grand Strategy program, taught by Paul Kennedy, John Lewis Gaddis, Charles Hill and others—and administrators should encourage more collaboration.

Even after scaling up, programs at elite colleges are unlikely to yield as many officers as larger universities in the South. But as long as government costs remain below or close to those incurred at the service academies—whose graduates can cost three to four times more than their ROTC counterparts—the military should not hesitate to fund ROTC programs at these institutions.

For their part, if top-tier schools want top-tier ROTC programs, they need to recruit potential warrior-scholars, going head-to-head with the service academies and other elite schools that never discontinued their ROTC programs, such as Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown. That will mean offering real incentives: financial aid supplements, room and board for cadets and so on.

There are many low-cost ways for schools to put military service on par with more traditional career paths. They can start by giving ROTC the same attention and institutional support received by other national service programs like Teach For America and the Peace Corps, and by having career advisers become as familiar with the military as they now are with law and medicine.

With the issue of gays in the military decided, the door has reopened for ROTC on many of the nation's top campuses. Among the Ivies, Brown University remains the lone holdout. It would be a tragedy if the Pentagon turned its back on this opportunity for reasons of green-eyeshade accounting.

Cheryl Miller is program manager of the Program on American Citizenship at AEI, and Jon Hillman is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations

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