Obama Should Return ROTC to Elite Universities

Obama should set a goal to return ROTC to the nation’s elite universities and a date to see it implemented.


Last week, I advanced several ideas the president might include in the State of the Union Address he is to give early in the New Year.

I listed four priorities: infrastructure, education, national security, and national defense; and tried to demonstrate how they were interconnected. President Obama’s repeated use of the sentence, “we are on the verge of another ‘Sputnik moment’" suggests that he accepts, at least in principle what the nation needs to do so that it can emerge from his presidency (whether in 2013 or 2017) in a far better place than it was when in went it began. Suggestions made in this space were intended to provide the contours of a blueprint he might use in rebuilding and protecting much of the nation’s physical, structural, intellectual, foundations.

[See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

Today, I offer one more. It may not have the impact of the Louisiana Purchase or the Marshall Plan, but it will nevertheless enhance the security of the United States. Here goes:

Set a goal to return ROTC to the nation’s elite universities and a date to see it implemented.

Since the height of the Vietnam War and the accompanying student protests that broke out against it on many college campuses, many universities abandoned long-standing practices of allowing their students to participate in ROTC. Others went so far as to ban military recruiters from their premises.

Over the years, a softening of anti-military sentiment on campus and passage of the “Solomon Amendment,” which mandated that all universities that accepted federal funds allow military recruiters on campus, the gulf between the two sectors narrowed, but ever so slightly. Recruiters were allowed to return, but, for the large part, most elite colleges and universities retained the bans they had placed on ROTC. Let it be said before going any further, that many prestigious, elite universities have long-maintained ROTC chapters and continue to do so. Those in the Ivy League do not. [Read more about the military.]

When pressed, these institutions maintained that they could not in good conscience open their facilities to entities that discriminated against a segment of the population. They argued that the “don’t ask, don’t tell,” policy that had been the law of the land until but a few days ago did precisely that by not allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

One of the benefits of the recent repeal of DADT is that it deprived universities of this excuse. But the change in the law will not in and of itself assure that students of the some of the best institutions in the land have the same opportunities to lend their talents to the defense of their country that their counterparts at other institutions do. Old habits, prejudices, and attitudes die hard. They may continue to live on in the absence of presidential pressure.

President Obama is perfectly poised to provide it. He is the product of two Ivy League universities (Columbia and Harvard). When he both promised to press for repeal of DADT and showed himself "open in principle" to bringing ROTC back to the elite universities that had banned it more than a generation ago. With the demist of DADT, Obama has an opportunity to act in accordance with the principle he espoused. [See a roundup of editorial cartoons about 'don't ask, don't tell.]

He should do so for two reasons. First and foremost, it will be a good thing for the military. There may be no wider cultural divide in the Unites States today than the one that exists between the Ivies and the military. Those who assume large military commands need to be familiar with the nature of the civilian society they and their troops are defending. They need to be exposed to people who see the world differently from them and who may espouse different values. The Ivies see it as their mission to those who will rise to the pinnacle of virtually every sector of American society. The absence of graduates of these institutions among the ranks of the military’s officer corps will perpetuate the cultural divide further, not only between military and civilian society, but between top ranks of the military and those of business, science, the arts, and, above all, the political class.

Consider this. Of the 12 men who have served as president since the end of World War II, six held at least one degree from an Ivy League university. Two, Eisenhower and Carter, were products of military academies. The military understands the importance of exposing young officers it hopes will advance into its upper strata to the best academic minds in the nation. (A West Pointer, Gen. David Petraeus holds a Ph.D. from Princeton.) It would benefit greatly from the opportunity to reach down into the ranks of ivy-league undergraduates. [See the top 10 colleges for members of Congress.]

Second, the active presence on campus of students who are undergoing military training will add greatly to the quality of life at Ivy League institutions and provide a level of diversity and outlook that they do not often encounter at these increasingly insular institutions. This writer has had the privilege of teaching several brilliant students at many universities. Some of the best belonged to the ROTC chapter at the George Washington University. They brought to class the perspective of people who have been at the receiving end of so many of the presidential directives we had been studying. And they expressed their ideas with a sophistication of people well beyond their years. It is the nation’s loss that students at places like Princeton, Yale, and Harvard, who may be called upon one day to send others into battle lack the opportunity to be exposed to such insights--and from their own peers.

Several have commented on the difficulties inherent in making this happen. Among those they cite are a liberal professoriate’s hostility to the military (a premise that is, perhaps, more uttered than actual), the military’s insistence that its recruits receive academic credit for their work (hardly an insurmountable obstacle, given the vast number of outside and inside activities for which students receive academic credit), and the likelihood that too few students will sign up to justify all the administrative barriers that need to be surmounted (an unproved hypothesis). This is where Obama comes in.

He should name a commission of leading academics and military personnel to put in place a plan to facilitate this transition and set a date for the process to begin. The president should not hesitate to ask Congress to provide the necessary funds (perhaps from other accounts in the defense budget) to make this happen. This single act would deprive both sides of a further excuse for delay.

Eliot Cohen, an expert on relations between presidents and generals, evoked the spirit of Obama’s favorite president to remind him that ROTC will not return to the ivy-league without intensive presidential intervention. (Cohen teaches at Johns Hopkins, which has had ROTC on campus since 1916.) Lincoln, Cohen reminds us, told Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War: "I repeat to you it will neither be done nor attempted unless you watch it every day, and hour, and force it."

In issuing his charge to the new commission, Obama should cite lines that Lincoln wrote to Grant. “General Sheridan says that if the thing is pressed, I think that Lee will surrender. Let the thing be pressed.” The president should take this on knowing that any resistance Robert E. Lee put up will pale by comparison to what university and military bureaucracies can do together to thwart presidential intentions.

  • See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
  • Read more about national security and the military.
  • See editorial cartoons on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"