<< The Body Politic

Scott Lemieux on ROTC: Not a very compelling argument, I’m afraid

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns, and Money seems to think he has scored a major point against “Instapundit” Glenn Reynolds, who recently wrote about the ROTC ban in the New York Post. Citing Diane Mazur’s recent op-ed, he writes:

There’s no “ban” on ROTC at elite schools, then. When universities required ROTC programs to comply with the university’s standards, the military left. The military could return ROTC to elite campuses anytime if [sic] chose to comply with basic requirements for academic standards. What Reynolds is asking for, therefore, is not nondiscrimination but for military programs to be exempt from basic academic standards that apply everywhere else. Not a very compelling argument, I’m afraid.

As Gary and I noted in our response to Mazur’s op-ed, there’s some serious problems with this line of reasoning.

First, I imagine it will come as news to Harvard president Drew Faust and Columbia president Lee Bollinger that ROTC is free to return to their respective campuses “anytime if [sic] chose to comply with basic requirements for academic standards.” Both Faust and Bollinger have been pretty clear in their statements that ROTC’s return to campus is contingent on the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT), not ROTC’s compliance with academic standards. (Indeed, Faust has even said the ban is “entirely linked to DADT.”) Are we to understand that the presidents of Harvard and Columbia are confused about their own policies?

Likewise, the Harvard Handbook for Students mentions only DADT in its explanation for the unrecognized status of ROTC. Protests over DADT are also the reason Harvard suspended its payments to MIT to help defray the administrative costs associated with including Harvard ROTC cadets in its program. (Supportive alumni now make the contribution.) In short, Lemieux’s attempt to deny DADT its central role in university policy toward ROTC today simply does not hold water.

Second, Lemieux greatly overstates the degree to which academic standards pose an obstacle to the return of ROTC. (I will be charitable and assume that Lemieux does not share the views of his commenters who seem to think the cadets of the MIT Army ROTC battalion are knuckle-dragging lunkheads looking for an “easy A.”) As Gary and I noted in our earlier post, hosting on-campus ROTC plainly does not require granting course credit to any or all ROTC classes. There is no reason Harvard, Columbia, or Yale could not follow the example of its sister Ivies—the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, or Princeton—in crafting a suitable policy for ROTC coursework.

Of course, elite universities could go the extra mile in offering substitute coursework for their ROTC programs (as MIT has done, for instance). Coursework in American military history, diplomatic history, government, international relations, international trade and finance, psychology, etc. would all be highly relevant for future military officers while satisfying standards of academic rigor.

Finally, leaving aside Lemieux’s fanciful notion of universities as staunch defenders of traditional academic standards, I would note that the vocational-content arguments against ROTC carry far less weight today. As Marc Lindemann observes, universities increasingly allow students to take professional or vocational courses for full academic credit. At Yale, for example, students can participate in the university’s Teacher’s Certification program; Columbia now offers a finance major. As Lindemann notes, “It would be difficult to argue that troop-leading procedures are less intellectually challenging than double-entry bookkeeping.”