The return of ROTC to New York City

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General Colin Powell pictured with CUNY ROTC cadets on May 31, 2013 at the US Army & CUNY launch ROTC Pilot Program in the Great Hall/Shephard Hall, The City College of New York/CUNY.

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  • After 41-year absence, ROTC programs returning to NYC colleges.

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  • Military is taking steps to reengage urban areas and the Northeast US.

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  • Just 1/3 of 18-29-year-olds have a close family member with military experience.

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Last month, the US Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) returned to the City College of New York after a 41-year absence. At the official signing ceremony last May, former secretary of state and retired general Colin Powell—arguably the college’s most famous alum and a graduate of Army ROTC—noted the significance of the reconciliation. In bringing ROTC back to campus, General Powell said, the college was recognizing that “we may disagree with the politics or the policies of it all but military service is honorable.”[1]

General Powell’s words were a reminder of ROTC’s tumultuous history at City College and its forced ouster during the firestorm of student protests over the Vietnam War. Like several other prominent schools—among them, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia University—City College had hosted one of the earliest ROTC programs in the nation, graduating its first class in 1917. But this collaboration ended during the Vietnam era after some schools voted to bar the college-based training program for military officers from campus.[2] Later opposition to US policy on gays in the military, particularly “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), reinforced the schools’ bans and led to the removal of more ROTC programs, including at one of City College’s sister schools, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Recent years have seen a softening in attitudes about the military among students and faculty. The attacks on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—as well as the upswell of new student veterans—led many at America’s colleges and universities to reassess their views of ROTC.[3] The 2010 repeal of DADT removed another obstacle to ROTC’s return. Thus, since 2011, with remarkably little opposition, official ties with ROTC have been renewed at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and City College.

ROTC’s return also heralds an important change for the military. The anti-ROTC campaigns of the Vietnam era coincided with a shift by the military away from the Northeast and urban areas toward easier recruiting grounds in the South and the Midwest. Over the years, this policy has become more pronounced, widening the gap between Americans and their military. Nowhere has this disconnect been more evident than in America’s largest city, which, until recently, was served by just four ROTC programs.

In short, the renewal of City College ROTC marks a move by the Army toward reengagement with New York City and with other areas currently underserved by military recruiting policy. The City College program is part of a larger effort to make ROTC more accessible to New York City students. Not only does the college provide ROTC with a foothold in Manhattan—New York’s most populous borough—but it will also serve as headquarters for a new partnership with the City University of New York (CUNY), the public university system to which City College belongs.

Along with its longtime programs at Fordham University in the Bronx and St. John’s University in Queens, Army ROTC is now teaching classes at York College in Queens (established last fall) and began training at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn last month.[4] The CUNY-ROTC partnership will redress the current scarcity of commissioning opportunities in New York, making the program more available to hundreds of thousands of students in all five boroughs of the city. If successful, it can serve as an example for big-city campuses in other underserved areas like Chicago and Los Angeles.[5]

1. Jeff Mays, “Colin Powell Helps City College Re-Launch ROTC Program,” DNAInfo, May 21, 2013,
2. Schools requesting that the ROTC be withdrawn included Boston College, Boston University, Brown University, Colgate University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Hobart College, New York University, Pratt Institute, Princeton University, Stanford University, SUNY Buffalo, Tufts University, and Yale University. Prior to the most recent wave of renewals, a handful of schools, including Boston University, Dartmouth, and Princeton, had already invited ROTC back.
 3. See, for example, Bryan Bender, “Elite Colleges Thawing on ROTC,” Boston Globe, April 26, 2010,
4. CUNY Newswire, “ROTC Returns to CUNY,” May 21, 2013,
5. Minutes of the Faculty Senate Plenary, City College of New York, February 21, 2013.

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