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ROTC Returns to the Ivy League

Interviewees: Roosevelt Montas, Professor of American Studies and Associate Dean at Columbia University
Donald Downs, Professor of Political Science, Law, and Journalism at the University of Wisconsin
Interviewer: Jonathan Masters, CFR Associate Staff Writer
April 1, 2011

The repeal of the U.S. military's controversial policy of "don't ask, don't tell" in December 2010 has led some of the country's elite universities to reevaluate their relationship with the armed services. Amid a wave of anti-government protests during the Vietnam era, many schools forced their Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) programs off campus, where some have remained for over forty years. However, in March 2011, Harvard University welcomed the program back to its campus, and some of its Ivy League peers like Columbia University in New York City may soon follow suit.

Roosevelt Montas, professor and associate dean at Columbia, co-chaired the school's Task Force on Military Engagement, charged with reexamining the opinions of the student body on the ROTC issue. The clear message was that campus opinion had shifted in favor of a return of the program, he says. However, he stresses there is a generational rift, with student views "strikingly different" from that of Vietnam-era faculty. Donald Downs, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin and author of the forthcoming book Arms and the University, notes that since the late 1960s, the focus of the ROTC-academia debate has drifted from issues of U.S. foreign policy and military intervention to disputes over social policy, such as sexual equality.

Both men agree the debate over ROTC's return to campus has been a magnet for misperception and media misrepresentation. Montas speaks of the cynical way the press portrayed an incident in which an army veteran and ROTC proponent was interrupted in his remarks before the task force: "I think that story was something where prejudices and stereotypes about so-called elite liberal institutions could very easily be latched onto . . . and showed me there is a narrative that has been mapped onto the ROTC debate."


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