Why McCain, Time, and Obama Are Wrong About ROTC

Note: I’m the author of Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest (see me on C-SPAN2) but I’m not part of the Obama campaign.

At the Columbia University forum on service on Sept. 11, John McCain declared, “do you know that this school will not allow ROTC on this campus? I don’t think that’s right.”

Rick Stengel, the editor of Time magazine, confirmed this “fact” in speaking to Obama:

STENGEL: To that end, to get the best and brightest into the military, this university, your alma mater, invited President Ahmadinejad of Iran to be here last year, but they haven’t invited ROTC to be on campus since 1969. Should Columbia and elite universities that have excluded ROTC invite them back on campus?
OBAMA: Yes. I think we’ve made a mistake on that.

Stengel is wrong. No one is banning ROTC or the military from speaking or appearing on campus, except for the military.

It’s politically understandable why Obama feels obligated to support ROTC. And in fact he is right: there should be ROTC programs at every college. However, the problem lies with the military (and Congress), not with the colleges that are falsely accused of banning ROTC. Columbia and other elite colleges never banned ROTC: they simply decreed that ROTC must follow the same rules for faculty control and open access as any other academic program. It was the military (following the rules imposed by Congress), that withdrew ROTC from Columbia and other colleges under these circumstances, not the reverse.

As I’ve written about before, according to military rules, ROTC programs must receive college credit and must be entirely controlled by the military in terms of faculty hiring, curriculum, and what students are permitted to attend classes. According to ordinary college rules, program curriculum and faculty must be determined by the university, not by outside groups. Some colleges simply allow ROTC unique status to violate campus rules, but they shouldn’t.

Even in colleges that currently refuse to grant college credit, the military could create ROTC programs. ROTC units can be run by the military using facilities rented from a college. Or they can created as registered student organizations open to all and run by students, or departments run and controlled by universities. But the Pentagon refuses all of these options.

It is true that the military’s biased “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies violate virtually all anti-discrimination laws. But we can hope this bigotry will end soon. However, it’s not homophobia that causes ROTC programs to be banned by the military from campuses.

What we need is a president who will turn ROTC into an independent, truly academic program rather than the current system. Having independent Military Studies programs would expand academic offerings about the military, allow all students to take these classes, and provide more faculty doing research on the military. It would be a winner for everyone: ROTC programs would be restored to all campuses, academic freedom would be preserved, and the quality of intellectual work and research about the military would greatly improve.

Crossposted at DailyKos.