ROTC May Return To Ivy League Campuses

Guest

Alvin Felzenberg, presidential historian and political commentator

For four decades, many elite and Ivy League schools have maintained outright bans on ROTC chapters on their campuses. But with the repeal of "don't ask don't tell," some Ivy League universities have indicated they may be open to the return of ROTC.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Here on TALK OF THE NATION, we're talking about the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, better known as ROTC, which has long been a path to the military for college students across the country. But for students at many elite colleges, jumpstarting a military career with ROTC has been difficult, if not impossible, for decades. That's because many elite universities have maintained outright bans on ROTC chapters on their campuses, bans dating back to the Vietnam War. And most of those schools have cited the military's exclusion of homosexuals as their basis for continuing to keep ROTC off campus. But "don't ask, don't tell" is now history, and some Ivy League schools are considering allowing ROTC back.

In an op-ed in U.S. News & World Report, presidential historian Alvin Felzenberg says that would be good news for the military and the Ivies. But old habits, prejudices and attitudes die hard, he writes. And he argues, ROTC can only make it back to the Ivy League if President Obama makes it a personal priority.

Is the debate over ROTC on campus playing out where you live? Tell us about it. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's npr.org and you click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Presidential historian Alvin Felzenberg is currently teaching at Yale University. He also teaches at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, and he joins me now from the studio at Yale. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. ALVIN FELZENBERG (Presidential Historian): Hello, Mary Louise. Nice to meet you.

KELLY: Nice to have you with us. Let me start by asking, we have seen, since the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," several Ivy League schools - Yale, where you are now...

Mr. FELZENBERG: Yeah.

KELLY: ...also Harvard and Columbia -...

Mr. FELZENBERG: Yeah.

KELLY: ...have started talking about getting ROTC back on campus.

Mr. FELZENBERG: Well, it's a great move, and I found it very...

KELLY: So we see movement already.

Mr. FELZENBERG: We see some movement. I commend those three Ivy League presidents for that. If I can have one second, let me tell you why I wrote the piece.

KELLY: Sure.

Mr. FELZENBERG: In the last 30 or so years since ROTC left some of these great universities, I have detected - many people agree with me - a growing cultural divide at the upper stratum of our society between those people who run the armed forces and those people who basically run virtually every other aspect of American life, whether they be business, whether they be law, whether they be journalism, entertainment, banking, communications.

Most of those fields are filled with people who have at least one Ivy League degree or a degree from a very prominent private university. I made a list of the last 12 presidents of the United States, last 12 commanders in chief, after Franklin Roosevelt. If you take out the two who went to the military academies - Eisenhower and Carter - of those 12, six had at least one Ivy League degree.

KELLY: Right.

Mr. FELZENBERG: Some had military training, some did not. Now, I suspect over the years that both sides have stopped talking, have kind of lived a myth about each other. The military is seen, perhaps at the Ivy League or other places, as a warrior class, as people who like to solve things through disputes and a force, forgetting the fact that they're sent to places by civilian commanders. And they're trying to protect our way of life as they see it, but they're carrying out orders.

Now, at a time when we had a draft, military people affected every home. All of America followed the battles in World War II because they wanted to see how Johnny's battalion was doing. When we moved to a voluntary system, the sacrifices are being borne by only a few.

Now, on the other side, military probably sees the universities as hotbeds of liberalism, hotbeds of anti-war activity, filled with people who, perhaps, disrespected our soldiers during Vietnam and other times. The fact that there's a great deal of coming together between science and industry and military science and medical achievements and many, many things that have helped both the military and the civilian sector is kind of forgotten.

So I'm not that eager, frankly, to see, you know, so many of our students sign up, as I am to see that they begin talking to people from different walks of life who are going into different fields.

I don't want to live in a society, frankly, where we have one class that sends other people's children to war and kind of sneer at them socially in some ways, and another class that sees itself as a Praetorian Guard, knowing better what's in the interest of the civilian sector than the people, perhaps, at the top that they may or may not respect.

KELLY: OK.

Mr. FELZENBERG: And I think one way to do that is bring ROTC back to campus.

KELLY: Well you raised a number of interesting points that I want to follow up with you. But let me let a listener get...

Mr. FELZENBERG: Please.

KELLY: ...the first question in to you. We've got on the line Michael(ph), down in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call. First of all, I'm a college professor at a university in the southern United States, and we recently started an ROTC program on our campus. It was met with some opposition by faculty members.

And I also have a son who serves in the reserve. And what I find is that - you know, I really feel we need to open our ROTC programs up to the best and the brightest because we certainly need the brightest minds we can get into the military. And quite frankly, the military tends to accommodate people - my son found this when he went in to the National Guard - it tends to accommodate a disproportionate number of people who really don't have a high level of education or a lot of economic option. And why not open the doors to our best and our brightest by, you know, having programs on our best college campuses.

KELLY: Michael, was there much opposition on your campus to the addition of this ROTC program?

MICHAEL: Well, there was initially when it was - basically, it was kind of pushed through by a new university president. And several faculty members were upset that they really didn't seem to open it up for debate, and many faculty members felt like it was kind of railroaded through. And I think it's because the president of the campus knew there may very well be some mixed emotions about the program. But, again, we're a growing university and saw it as an opportunity to make our services available to a wider audience.

And in the past, we had excluded many - students didn't consider our school because we didn't have an ROTC program, such as my son who participated in the ROTC in his - during his high school years.

KELLY: Alvin Felzenberg, let me let you jump in there.

Mr. FELZENBERG: Michael? Yes.

KELLY: Yeah.

Mr. FELZENBERG: Two things. Number one, I want to thank Michael's son and his students for their service. Second, I point out that this great cultural divide has affected people in Michael's generation and mine. When I attended Princeton University for my PhD, I was taught by many, many people who had gone to college on the GI Bill, who had fought in World War II, who had fought in Korea.

I think of Professor Walter Murphy who was a hero in the Korean War and taught me constitutional interpretation. So it was a time when the faculty itself felt very close to the military and nurtured and mentored young men and, eventually, young women, into such careers. That has stopped too.

And, you know, we're all prisoners of our youth. I use to hate it when my mother and dad used to tell me what life was like in the '30s and they went without, and therefore, I should finish my dessert and all of that.

Well, Vietnam has been over a long time. And, you know, those student demonstrations that kind of forced ROTC off Princeton when I was a student and - those are over. The military has changed. The civilian sector has changed. The nature of war has changed. And the nature of skills to do a very tactical job, as Michael talks about, in the military have changed and we need the best people available. It needs to at least be an option. And I thank you for your service and your students.

MICHAEL: You know, I've got one final comment and that is, I was on campus in the '70s for my undergraduate degree, and people returning from Vietnam were - many students were not treated very well on college campuses...

Mr. FELZENBERG: That's right.

MICHAEL: ...in the '70s. You know, I was on a college campus at that time, and it was shocking to me the cold reception many of them who served our country got when they returned to campus.

Mr. FELZENBERG: That's right.

MICHAEL: And again, it's kind of that attitude to change, you know...

Mr. FELZENBERG: Well, they deserve better from their political leadership that sent them. They didn't start the war. And I suspect that we've learned a little bit from that on both sides.

KELLY: All right. Michael, thanks so much for your call and your perspective.

MICHAEL: Thank you so much.

KELLY: Thank you. I want to jump straight to another caller on the line from San Antonio, Texas. Melissa(ph), you're on the air.

MELISSA (Caller): Well, thank you so much for taking my call. I view this conversation, this debate from several perspectives. I'm a member of a multigenerational military family. My father was career Air Force. My husband was career Air Force. I served for eight years, after graduating from Mount Holyoke College with an Air Force ROTC scholarship in the very early 1980s. So my experience is one of the very rare. There were only two of us on campus in ROTC, walking across campus in my uniform to take the bus to my detachment. I was a complete novelty to everyone else on campus. So that's one of my perspectives.

I'm also a college professor now in San Antonio, and I teach many ROTC cadets. And I'm interested in their lives, and I recognize the conflicts between their - sometimes, between their military service and their academic and intellectual lives. So, I, too, like your other callers and like your panelist, feel so strongly that the U.S. military at this moment in our history needs the very, very best minds we can offer and they need to read and write and think clearly, and we need ROTC to be present on the best campuses.

KELLY: All right. Melissa, thanks so much for your call. We appreciate it.

Mr. FELZENBERG: One response...

KELLY: Please.

Mr. FELZENBERG: ... mentioned George Washington University...

KELLY: Hmm.

Mr. FELZENBERG: ...that's one of the great institutions that has kept ROTC. They've never left. I want to say that some of the ROTC students in my class have been among the best. And I've also called on them, also, to add to my lectures because they do learn about military history, a field that's been, unfortunately, neglected at some universities. They know about strategy. They know the difference between tactics and strategy. They know about generalship: good generalship, bad generalship.

I actually called up one of them to help me - when I was teaching about Lincoln and Grant and their strategy of the Civil War. These kids know their stuff and they're very eloquent at it. And we need them. We thank them.

KELLY: Let me ask you about one potential hurdle, and that is the cost of bringing ROTC back to campuses where it hasn't been before or it hasn't been in a very long time. Pursuing chapters at elite universities would be very expensive. The military would foot that bill or at least a large portion of it. How big of a hurdle do you think that will be?

Mr. FELZENBERG: Well, look, the Defense Department is a large place. People are looking to make cuts. A colleague of mine at George Washington University, Alex Gray, and I have written a piece, trying to say, please cut with a scalpel and not with a meat axe or the meat cleaver.

KELLY: Hmm.

Mr. FELZENBERG: This can be done and is a priority. And the reason I asked in my article for President Obama to make it a priority - look, he's been a role model to young people. He's bridged many divides already in his life, heading the effort in Afghanistan is a man who brings together both the best of the military and the university life, General Petraeus, PhD from my alma mater, Princeton University.

It's time to get this conversation going. Secretary Gates, perhaps the very last of the wise men who have tried to steady our defense apparatus in many years - we're going to the 50th anniversary of President Eisenhower's farewell address, talking about the military-industrial complex and how we need to stand guard over unsought or sought influence perhaps, and Kennedy's call to public service, again, 50 years ago this month.

I think there's a great opportunity to say, look, we're going to be cutting the defense where we can, but nothing is more important than trying to get the best people in this country to serve this country at all of its levels. And if you take a place like Harvard or Yale or Penn or Columbia or any of the ones you mentioned, they're filling the upper stratum of banking. I mean, the bankers come here and they recruit; even when we had bad economic times, they're out here. The law firms, Hollywood, journalism, people filling Silicon Valley and other places. It's a terrible thing to have the military so underrepresented.

KELLY: All right. We're speaking with...

Mr. FELZENBERG: And I think we need to bridge that divide very, very quickly. Derek Bok once said about education, if you think it's expensive, try ignorance. And this is not a place to cut. This is a place...

KELLY: Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard there. And we're speaking here with Alvin Felzenberg, currently at Yale, a presidential historian. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let me see if we can squeeze one more caller in here. This is Dina(ph) on the line from Orleans, Massachusetts.

DINA(Caller): Thank you very much. Yes, for many of the reasons he just said, I'm opposed to the reintroduction of ROTC on campus. You know, I believe a college is supposed to be an institution that's supposed to encourage critical thinking while the military encourages a regimented conformity, and that we just preserve the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower spoke of.

Yeah, he's talking about bankers and journalists. I mean, they all, you know, they're all there to support the status quo, which is war and more war as we see now in Iraq and Afghanistan, even under liberal Obama. So, no, I'm against it. I'm sorry. I really don't feel the military belongs on campus.

KELLY: You see the two cultures as having more problems integrating that wouldn't be worth it from our point of view of what they might benefit from coming together.

Mr. FELZENBERG: Well, I respect the caller's view. I respectfully disagree. But what he said about bankers and journalists and all these people are part of the problem, I'm not sure if he wants to close the campuses to the military or keep it closed to the military or perhaps close it to future bankers, future lawyers, future journalists.

DINA: What I'm saying the military is often serving as henchman for elite bankers and elite - you know, people who benefit from war.

Mr. FELZENBERG: So we shouldn't let them recruit on campus either. Is that were you saying? We shouldn't have bankers recruit, we shouldn't have -

DINA: Maybe not, no. Maybe not. I mean, I know there's business schools and everything, but I really think that the critical thinking so integral to education in a democracy is undermined by a military, which encourages, you know, conformity and regimentation. I mean, I was in the Air Force.

Mr. FELZENBERG: Well, actually, some of the - OK. All right.

DINA: No. Go ahead, go ahead.

KELLY: An argument there...

Mr. FELZENBERG: No, no, go ahead. I'm trying to respect your view and listen to you.

KELLY: Well, we appreciate. We appreciate that, Dana(ph). And so an argument there for keeping the ivory tower pure and untainted by outside influence.

DINA: I don't like that term, ivory tower. I'm sorry. I mean...

Mr. FELZENBERG: OK.

DINA: Education should be more - maybe with yeah - maybe elite schools so-called have their issues, too, because not everybody can attend them but that's - I think the college campus should be a place to encourage inquiry and respectful skepticism and inquiry.

Mr. FELZENBERG: I would say some of the best - I have to say that some of the best critical thinking to come out of the militaries emerged at a place called West Point.

KELLY: A great conversation...

Mr. FELZENBERG: When they said that (unintelligible).

KELLY: ...and we're gonna have to leave it there.

Mr. FELZENBERG: Thank you.

KELLY: Obviously very strong point of views. Thanks for your call, Dana, and thanks for your time, Alvin Felzenberg. He's a presidential historian, currently teaching at Yale University, and he joined us from the studio there in New Haven, Connecticut.

Tomorrow, a year after the earthquake in Haiti, we'll be talking with the head of USAID about the aftermath of that quake, what worked and what didn't. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Neal Conan is back tomorrow. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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