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Last month, Columbia University and the US Navy signed an agreement allowing the Reserve Officer Training Corps back onto campus for the first time since it was banned amid Vietnam War protests.
The re-embrace of ROTC by elite schools marks the end of a shameful chapter in our nation’s history. But ROTC cadets on these campuses–indeed, across much of the nation–still face serious obstacles to their aspiration to serve their country.
Columbia may have officially recognized Naval ROTC, but the program will have to make do with only an office on campus: Cadets must trek out to SUNY’s Maritime College in The Bronx–an hour’s commute each way by public transportation–for training.
“So many barriers can fall if the military is flexible and schools lend proper support.”–Cheryl Miller
Under such circumstances, Columbia ROTC can hardly be expected to prosper. A program that once occupied a central place on campus–at its height, the Columbia Corps of Midshipmen rivaled the US Naval Academy in size–will remain peripheral to student life, graduating just a handful of officers each year.
The blame lies not with Columbia or its students, but with the ROTC program in New York City–which has just four host units located on campuses remote from most students.
Manhattan and Brooklyn lack any full-time ROTC presence. No ROTC program exists at any of CUNY’s 23 campuses, which enroll nearly half of all city college students.
Instead, cross-enrolled cadets must make long commutes–often on their own dime–while they juggle coursework and conflicting school schedules. As commuters, they miss out on much of the camaraderie and mentoring that are among ROTC’s biggest benefits. With so many obstacles, it’s surprising there aren’t fewer city ROTC cadets.
New York is hardly alone. Shortsighted Pentagon budget cuts have undermined ROTC’s national character, leaving it more Southern and rural. Its critical civic function–ensuring that the officer corps reflects the nation–has languished.
ROTC’s citizen-soldiers have long served as a hedge against a civil-military divide. Today, that mission is more important than ever–yet ROTC is ill-equipped to meet it. Even as we fight the longest war in US history, few Americans have a personal connection to the military, making it less likely they can truly appreciate the sacrifices made by those who serve.
Given budget constraints, establishing ROTC host programs will require pressure from Congress. But reversing the downward turn of ROTC in New York should be a national priority.
Effective outreach can make a difference. Fordham University’s Army ROTC program almost closed in 2000. Then it got an energetic new instructor–a native New Yorker and Fordham ROTC graduate–who opened classes at the school’s Lincoln Center campus and began recruiting aggressively at outside campuses. Fordham Army ROTC went from the bottom of the pack to the top 15 percent of ROTC units nationwide.
So many barriers can fall if the military is flexible and schools lend proper support. Top-notch instructors who understand the area and recruit aggressively can revitalize a flagging program. Placing such an instructor at a Manhattan or Brooklyn college full-time–perhaps at Columbia–would help ROTC reach out.
Columbia’s ROTC homecoming happened because of the advocacy and hard work of many student and alumni patriots. These young people look at their fellow students in uniform with admiration and respect. More important, many might welcome the chance to serve themselves–if they had the chance.
The military should strive to reconnect not just with students at elite schools–but also with the many talented and diverse young Americans who are underserved by ROTC.
Cheryl Miller is program manager for the American Citizenship Program at AEI.
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