University News

‘Reserve’-ing judgment for ROTC

Forty years after ROTC’s eviction, attitudes soften on campus

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010

At Brown today, bared navels are a more common sight then naval officers — but that wasn’t always the case.

Brown was once home to a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps, but 40 years ago the faculty voted to expel the program from College Hill. Now, some students want to bring it back, though they’re facing opposition.

In 1969, amid fierce dissatisfaction with American involvement in Vietnam, the Faculty Executive Committee voted to phase out ROTC, a military program that commissions students as officers in the U.S. military and trains them during their university years.

By 1972, the Brown ROTC program — once headquartered just off the Main Green in Lyman Hall — was abolished. Brown students interested in ROTC can currently join the Providence College battalion, but in recent years, only a handful have done so.

Last week, Students For ROTC held its first two public events, a dinner hosting Brown ROTC alums and a panel discussion with military officers. The group, founded last spring by Keith Dellagrotta ’10, has circulated a petition, which currently has 200 signatures, calling for ROTC support. The group itself only has about six active members, he said.

This is not the first time that there has been talk of bringing ROTC back to College Hill since its expulsion. Over the years, there have been student groups, including one that was active in 2007, letters to the editor printed in The Herald and reconsideration by a University committee.

But what makes now different? Why might a campus that once held rallies and sit-ins protesting the military now consider a growing relationship with ROTC?

The return of ROTC to Brown is unlikely at this point — according to retired U.S. Army LTC Paul Dulchinos, it may not currently make sense for the military to invest money and personnel when the PC battalion is so close and there is so little student demand.

But certain factors, including the possible future reformation of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and a shift in attitude, point to the changed nature of a debate over ROTC at Brown.

For one, Brown is not alone. Groups at Harvard and Columbia have also been working to re-establish support for the program. A recent Boston Globe article described this as the “thawing” of elite university administrators’ opposition to ROTC.

Bringing ROTC back to Brown’s campus “hasn’t been part of the conversation so far,” said Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron.

But, she said, “I think it would be fruitful for us to look into ways of recognizing in some fashion the work that students do in the ROTC program (at PC).” The form that such recognition would take hasn’t been decided yet, but more convenient transportation to PC and the possibility for academic credit for ROTC courses are two considerations, according to Bergeron.

Support for students in ROTC isn’t new, she said. The University has a dean who oversees ROTC cadets and maintains a Web site with the program information. Top administrators, including President Ruth Simmons, were in attendance at last year’s commissioning ceremony, a visible sign of University support.

Bergeron said she did see a shift in attitudes toward the military, and particularly noted the increased attendance at this year’s Veteran’s Day ceremonies. This shift might affect contemporary campus views on the ROTC program, she said.

“This isn’t 1969,” she added.

Turbulent times
It’s true. This isn’t 1969. Popular criticism of today’s military often seizes upon the current “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, which prohibits openly gay people from serving in the military — a debate that hadn’t even begun before ROTC left campus.

In 1969, when ROTC protests had reached their fever pitch, the military draft was looming for male students.

In the official 1969 vote calling for the phase-out, the faculty cited problems with awarding academic course credit for arguably less rigorous ROTC classes and granting faculty status to military officers. Though that was true — “a really good supplementary argument” — the major thrust to expel the military presence from College Hill instead grew out of students’ and faculty’s increased dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War, according to Professor Emeritus of History and Slavic Studies Abbott Gleason, who began teaching at Brown one year earlier.

“That was a repudiation of American foreign policy,” he said.

The phase-out left open the possibility for ROTC to return, provided that seven conditions — including, for example, that ROTC courses “not carry credit” at Brown and that the awarding of degrees not be based on ROTC participation — were met. Following further negotiations with the military, these conditions proved incompatible with U.S. military regulations and the program was fully abolished. After 55 years of ROTC at Brown, 1972 was the last.

Travelin’ down the hill
In the late 1980s, around 15 Brown students participated in the PC ROTC unit.
Today, there is just one: Joy Joung ’11.

The number of Brown participants in ROTC has been relatively low for several years, according to Dulchinos, who served as professor of military science for the PC ROTC Battalion from 2005 to 2008. But just one cadet is a particularly low presence, he said.

Joung drives her roommate’s car to PC for her 6:30 a.m. physical training session five days a week, and on Wednesdays she returns for an afternoon of military labs and classes. On these class days, she wears her uniform, which can provoke unusually long stares, she said. Students sometimes ask “what is this?” or “are you in a play?” she said, adding that the most common response to her cadet status is simple curiosity.

The most common criticism of the military that she hears is from students opposing the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, she said. But as some military officers at the panel pointed out, that policy was decided by civilian politicians, not the military, she said.

Joung, an ROTC scholarship recipient, is required to fulfill eight years of duty, four of them active. She hopes to work in military intelligence, using her knowledge of Russian and Korean, though she won’t know her future military career path until she takes an evaluation exam next summer. But this exam won’t determine everything — 40 percent of a cadet’s final evaluation score is determined by their college grade point average, she said.

“They stress school,” Joung said, adding that she was surprised with how flexible the program was to accommodate both her academic schedule and her varsity hockey commitment. But it is still a difficult balance, she said, adding that greater institutional support in the form of transportation or course credit might convince more people to consider ROTC.

“You’re a college student first and a cadet second,” she said.

Opening opportunities…
That may be, but several speakers at last week’s dinner said they found their ROTC participation to be a defining experience at Brown. Alums and military officers spoke glowingly of the leadership and personal experience they gained, calling their units a “second home” or their “family.”

Beyond the military’s positive effects on Brown students, the officers and veterans made another case for ROTC — the positive effect of Brown students on the military.
“Restoration of ROTC may actually liberalize the narrow view that characterizes (the military),” said Clarke Ryder ’61 at the dinner.

Officers at the panel were also quick to remind the audience of the military’s need for top-tier students. During his time as a professor of military science for the PC battalion, U.S. Army LTC Steven McGonagle commissioned about 100 cadets, but only two ever made it to the elite Ranger regiment — and both were Brown students, he said.

One
of those two students, Scott Quigley ’05, joined the ROTC program after the September 11 attacks because it “was the most practical option to contribute and prepare for serving in a military and for a nation at war,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. His Brown education made him a “more well-rounded and competent officer,” he wrote.

At the dinner, NROTC alum Jack Nixon ’64 spoke heatedly about the experience he gained from the military, calling it the “most important” work experience of his life.

“At least I had a choice,” he said.

Alums and officers also said their ROTC scholarship gave them the freedom to attend a college they couldn’t otherwise afford.

Or closing doors?
But “it is not a debt-free education,” according to naval veteran Sean Dinces GS, who said the cost is your military service. “You do have to repay them. And that’s not choice.”

Dinces graduated from a naval academy in 2004, and served four years as a naval officer before being discharged in 2008. During his time in the military, Dinces was disturbed by the “xenophobic, homophobic and sexist” military culture that he encountered, he said.

After his discharge, Dinces began working for a volunteer organization as a counselor for military personnel seeking to leave the military, including conscientious objectors and people like him who are disturbed by the discriminatory realities of military culture, he said.

These realities are a large part of why Dinces believes ROTC should not return to the Brown campus. He also does not agree that the military culture is likely to be changed from within, and noted personal counseling experience with individuals who found themselves unable to reconcile personal philosophy with the military institution.

Other students opposed to the program worry about the influence and control the military might exercise over Brown itself if it has the power to award credit. Is that something the University might fear from a growing relationship with the military?

“No,” Bergeron said.

There is no organized group opposing the Brown support for ROTC, but at the panel last week, one graduate student circulated a flier making the argument against ROTC on campus. And those opposed say they will mobilize against University movement to bring the program back.

Beyond Brown
Some consider what Brown support of ROTC might signify beyond College Hill.

“To invite ROTC back now would be to make a political statement for continued military presence” in the Middle East, said Professor Gleason.

On the other hand, the prominence of Brown ROTC alums in the military ranks would bring greater recognition of University excellence, military officers said.

And the reality is that a handful of Brown students are joining these ranks even now without much University support for the PC program.

Four of the six active members of Students for ROTC are graduating this year. Dellagrotta will be going to medical school on a health professional scholarship from the airforce. After medical school and residency, he will serve four years of active duty. He said he hopes his student group continues to work to bring ROTC back to Brown after he leaves, and believes that other students feel the same way he does.

In fact, it was the student support for ROTC demonstrated by last semester’s Herald poll that provided motivation to plan the two events, he said. The poll found that 41.3 percent of students said they would support the reinstatement of ROTC, 24.9 percent said they’d oppose it and 33.8 percent said they didn’t know.

This might be an indication of the campus’s changing attitude towards the military. But in the end, it is not always the plurality opinion that effects change.

In fact, when the Curriculum Committee initially examined the question of ROTC at Brown, the majority favored it remain on campus in a modified form. It was the student who wrote the minority opinion that called for its complete removal who ultimately won out.

That student was Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98. “He was a radical,” said Gleason.
At that time, “campus dynamics were highly charged” in a way students today would have a hard time understanding, Kertzer said.

Along with the times, Kertzer has shifted his views. Today, he is more receptive to consideration of University support for ROTC. But he would still require the University retain control over military faculty hiring and ensure academic intellectual freedom for students in the military science program if it were brought back on campus, he said.

Still, “the argument that the university should facilitate students who are interested in participating in a ROTC program is a pretty strong argument,” he said.
What would his former self say?

“I don’t think my 22 year-old self would be that happy,” he said.