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Crimson and Camoflauge By: Brendan Miniter
The Opinion Journal | Tuesday, May 28, 2002


The United States has the most powerful, the most technically advanced and one of the most restrained militaries in the world. Its soldiers are trained to provide humanitarian relief while fighting guerillas hiding among villagers. Its bombs are designed to dodge innocents in search of combatants. And after soldiering, many in the armed forces build on their military service to become leaders in their communities, run successful business and sometimes achieve high political office.

Yet, since at least 1970, when the Reserve Officer Training Corps was kicked off campus, Harvard University has kept the military at arm's length (or further). Harvard students who want to participate in ROTC have to take military courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It's ironic that one of the elite institutions of higher learning, which lays claim to preparing students to lead the world, would try to keep its students from defending that world.

That may be about to change. Lawrence Summers, who became Harvard's president in October after a stint as Bill Clinton's Treasury secretary, seems to favor increasing ties between the student body and the ROTC. He persists in praising soldiers, firemen and policemen in his standard "stump speech." And he has already made changes. After a long hiatus, this year ROTC will finally be included in the "student activities" section of the yearbook. If they want to, students can have their yearbook photos taken in uniform.

The issue has opened up a generation gap--but today it's the students who are standing up for patriotism and duty. The power to bring ROTC back lies with the university's professors, the bulk of whom have opposed ROTC since they were able to kick it off campus during the Vietnam War. But the Undergraduate Council recently voted 19-12 to make it easier for students to get credit for ROTC courses.

Although the council stopped short of endorsing a return of ROTC to campus, it urges the administration to encourage faculty members to meet with ROTC officers. This is important for students because ROTC imposes its own academic requirements. Although upper-level leadership courses must be taught by military officers, ordinary college courses in such subjects as military history, computer science and writing can meet the lower-level requirements--but first ROTC officers must look over a syllabus and possibly meet with the professor to make sure the class in question fits the criteria.

At Harvard that communication hasn't happened. Many professors are concerned that such meetings will result in modifying courses to fit military criteria. The concern isn't that Harvard thinking will rub off on the military, but that military thinking will rub off on Harvard.

That last point cuts through all the rhetoric surrounding the ROTC debate on Harvard Yard. With the Vietnam War long over, most ROTC opponents object to Bill Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward homosexuals, which they see as discriminatory. But even that argument ultimately amounts to saying: The military's way of thinking isn't our way of thinking. And we don't want it to be. So it's important for the administration to send the faculty the message that the U.S. military's ideas are welcome on campus.

The military isn't too concerned about the symbolism in "getting back on campus" and is quietly pleased with how things are progressing at Harvard. ROTC rules are governed by the Solomon Act, which gives the secretary of defense the power to withhold funding from universities that put too many roadblocks in front of ROTC students. Harvard meets Solomon Act requirements, Maj. Bob Curran, an ROTC officer at the MIT battalion, told me.

What's more, the military isn't pursuing having upper-level leadership courses taught at Harvard. Currently Harvard supplies the most students to the MIT battalion, which also services Tufts, Wellesley and Salem State, but it doesn't make sense to relocate there, he says. Right now there's just not enough cadets coming from Harvard to make that an efficient decision. "We have a great working relationship" with Harvard, he adds. "We wouldn't want to undermine that." But it would be helpful to have an office on campus to minimize commuting to MIT, he says.

Maj. Curran does, however, point out that Harvard has a long military tradition and said it would be nice if the military was welcomed back there without hesitation. The first general appointed in 1775 under the command of George Washington in the Continental Army was Artemas Ward, a Harvard graduate. Harvard built its Memorial Hall in remembrance of graduates who fought for the Union in the Civil War. And Harvard's Memorial Church was built in memory of graduates who fought in World War I. Memorials have been added to the church for those graduates killed in each of the nation's wars since, including 22 names of Harvard graduates who died serving their country in Vietnam.

Of course, all of this affects real people. More than 40 Harvard students must spend several hours each week riding a bus to MIT to take required ROTC courses. Those courses count toward earning a military commission, but not toward a Harvard degree. The overhead of all of this--a total of $130,000 to $150,000 a year--is paid by alumni. (Harvard, it seems, is so wealthy that it is willing to direct alumni dollars across town.) But Mr. Summers seems to want to change that too. He's been asking students what they think about Harvard funding ROTC overhead costs from its endowment.

It also plays out in bizarre ways on campus. ROTC officers are not allowed to recruit or set up a table on campus--except on corporate recruiting days. But Harvard does support an ROTC Association, which can hand out literature, recruit and hold meetings on campus. The difference here is that the association is a student-run group, open to all students, and therefore it doesn't violate the university's nondiscrimination policy. (Of course, openly bisexual, "tansgender" and similar groups can hang banners, hand out leaflets and actively encourage students to come to rallies, so long as they don't formally restrict their membership.)

On June 5 Mr. Summers will walk out into Harvard Yard, welcome Harvard's graduating ROTC students (and the other ROTC students in the MIT battalion) and watch as they receive their military commissions. As the nation confronts the enemy of the 21st century, terrorism, the military more than ever needs the best and brightest. "Who better than Harvard to provide those leaders?" Maj. Curran asks. It's a question Harvard professors should be asking themselves as students file into Harvard Yard June 6, fill the same seats the ROTC students sat in the day before and receive their degrees.




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