Ian Trupin ’13: Painting Brown Khaki

Opinions Columnist
Thursday, March 3, 2011

Arguments for and against reinstating the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps as a credit-bearing institution on campus have animated this opinions section for some time now. But as lengthy as the debate has been, an important consideration has not received enough attention — the University’s reputation and its associated financial interests.

When President Ruth Simmons created a committee to reconsider Brown’s relationship with ROTC this month, she created a forum for a dialogue with enormous symbolic significance, though less practical urgency. As has been frequently asserted, the 1969 and 1981 decisions to deny ROTC special access to our campus were essentially critiques of the U.S. military. Though other pretexts were used to justify the decisions, such as questions over the academic rigor of ROTC courses, opponents of ROTC were motivated by distaste for the wars, occupations and discriminatory practices of the U.S. military.

From the beginning, the question of restoring ROTC privileges has been a question of the University’s public stance towards the military. As the constituents of a private, publicly subsidized educational institution grounded in the common good, do we feel bound to open our doors to a military presence of any kind?

It must be recognized that militarization in higher education — or the rejection of it — can take many forms, of which ROTC affiliation is only the most visible. In 2008, the University received $8.6 million of its research funding from the Department of Defense. Though Brown is apparently not one of the many universities in this country that welcomes classified research, our campus’ research ties to the military are nevertheless strong.

To some extent, this is to be expected given the augmentation of Brown’s engineering programs. Nationwide, the Department of Defense is the largest source of federal funding for engineering departments at research universities.

Other military-university connections are perhaps less obvious. There is, for example, a biology lab at Brown whose investigation of bat flight is financially underwritten by the Air Force, which hopes to create a new generation of remote-controlled drones. Even the social sciences, with their allegedly leftist bent, have not been free of military patronization. In 2008, the Department of Defense announced the Minerva Research Initiative, an $18 million initiative to employ social science scholars at universities around the country in a series of research projects of interest to the Pentagon.

Clearly, there are strong financial incentives for universities like Brown to maintain ties with the military. That the interaction between campuses and programs like ROTC is a determinant of the perceived compatibility of universities with military interests is also unambiguous.

The Solomon Amendment II of 1996 required that universities allow ROTC and military recruiters access to their students or lose their eligibility for federal funding. As Brown students may access the ROTC program at Providence College, Brown is not in violation of this law. But this law demonstrates the political forces that may be brought to bear against an institution that does not accommodate the military to its satisfaction.

So is it worthwhile to object? Proponents of the reintroduction of ROTC on campus suggest that military affiliation can diversify both the campus and the military. But in assuming that militarization can occur as an equal exchange on our campus, their argument is flawed on every level.

Besides being repulsively elitist, the argument that Brown students could infiltrate and change the conservative military culture from the top down ignores the rigidly normative culture that is so well embodied by the slogan “Army of One.” This restrictive and unequal basis of interaction is also reflected by the nature of research funded by the Department of Defense.

A glance at the Minerva Initiative’s grant application forms shows that the military is fully supportive of free academic inquiry, as long as it is restricted to one of five topics including Chinese military technology research, the strategic impact of religious and cultural change in Islam and terrorist ideologies. As Catherine Lutz, chair of the Department of Anthropology, has written, “based on the history of other disciplines fed by Pentagon funds … we know that whole fields, not just individual researchers, are militarized in the process.

In a similar vein, the Network of Concerned Anthropologists denounced another Pentagon social science research program, Human Terrain System, for reasons including the lack of informed consent of the subjects and the possibility that subjects might be harmed as a consequence of participation. In such programs, the military is clearly not accommodating the ethics and principles of other disciplines but selectively using them.

Something is lost when we subordinate our academics to the interests of the military, be it financially or symbolically. If we do so, what will become of those whose moral and political beliefs prevent them from participating in academia when the results of their work will be destructively employed? I ask this as the grandson of a man who was forced against his conscience to develop biological weapons while serving in the U.S. military.

Regardless of what the committee decides, it will undoubtedly ignore the broader context of military-University relations. Yet we must make these connections if we want to be good advocates for the kind of Brown we can wear comfortably.

Ian Trupin is a COE concentrator who loves Ethiopian food as much as life itself.