<< The Body Politic

Arms and the University

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

At Inside Higher Ed, Mitch Smith interviews the authors of a new book that looks at ROTC in higher education, Arms and the University: Military Presence and the Civic Education of Non-Military Students. Authors Donald Alexander Downs (University of Wisconsin at Madison) and Ilia Murtazashvili (University of Pittsburgh) argue that a strong ROTC presence on college campuses helps the military by providing an officer corps that reflects the nation and benefits the colleges themselves by exposing students to the military and lessening the civil-military gap. As Cheryl Miller noted in last year’s report Underserved: A Case Study of ROTC in New York City,  “few Americans today have a personal connection to the military. Veterans represent 9 percent of the total population (a number that continues to decline), and less than 1 percent of Americans serves in any of the military services, active duty or reserves. Soldiers also come from a narrower segment of society–geographically and culturally–than ever before. Southerners disproportionately populate all the branches, while the Northeast and large metropolitan areas–New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia–are underrepresented. […] Since the Vietnam War era, ROTC units have shifted to the South and Midwest for economic and cultural reasons. Urban areas have been abandoned in favor of cheaper and larger training sites in rural and suburban America. The result of this shift–an officer caste increasingly detached from civilian society–is precisely what the ROTC was intended to protect against.”

Here are some of the questions and answers from Smith’s interview:

Q:  In addition to looking at Ivy League colleges, you examine the ROTC culture at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. What does the sizable ROTC presence at Wisconsin offer students and faculty not involved in the program? What’s the payoff for the country?

Downs: ROTC has presence at Madison, though it is not overwhelming due to the size of the campus. Our survey of non-ROTC students showed that a meaningful minority of students were influenced by being exposed to ROTC cadets in class, as roommates, and/or in social interaction. Of this group, over three-fourths had positive experiences. The first payoff is for those who take actual ROTC courses open to non-cadets, as they gain knowledge about the military, policy and strategy they could not gain from other courses and they gain knowledge and perspective by being around military personnel.  Others benefited by being exposed to ROTC cadets in class. We report examples of how cadets provided different perspectives on policy and history in non-ROTC classes. In one class, for example, a cadet corrected the views of students who misunderstood “just war” theory, which the cadet had learned from ROTC. In another class, a veteran informed students how difficult it is to use deadly force. The students had thought it would be easy to exercise self defense, but the veteran revealed that this is not the case based on his own personal experience in war in Iraq, and that most human beings are very reluctant to resort to violence even when it is called for. Hence the need for appropriate training

Q: What should an administrator at an institution with an established ROTC corps learn from your book?

Murtazashvili: While the conventional view of ROTC presence stresses the importance of placing the university in the military (the idea is to make better officers and soldiers), we showed that the university also benefits from military presence.  My recommendation would be to figure out new ways to bring non-military students closer to ROTC and veterans groups.  For example, many universities have leadership studies programs that currently do not take advantage of ROTC programs. In addition, building bridges for non-military students to take ROTC courses would help. And the university can also spend more time establishing opportunities for non-military students to take ROTC courses that have more general appeal.  It would also be helpful to do more to tie together physical presence of the military, which includes ROTC and veterans group, with intellectual inquiry into war, which includes security studies and military history.  We found that some of the nation’s best security studies programs do an excellent job integrating ROTC and military history into their disciplines but that many history and political science programs have little if any integration of physical and intellectual presence of the military on campus. Such cross-fertilization could be encouraged by university leaders, perhaps by creating fellowships for military officers that would bring military presence more explicitly to security studies and history programs.


Q:  You question the wisdom of assuming most soldiers will come from the South and Midwest and that the largest ROTC programs will be at non-elite institutions in those regions. What are the problems with this informal policy? Is it realistic to expect Harvard to start churning out ROTC graduates?

Murtazashvili: ROTC has economies of scale: once the military decides to set up a program, the costs decline as they turn out more officers. Based on this economic reasoning, they are going to set up more programs in the South and Midwest.  The fear, of course, is an officer corps that is out of step with the United States more generally. While officers from the South and Midwest are unlikely to be that different from officers trained elsewhere, we find it odd that a state as large as New York, for example, would have so few opportunities for students who want to participate in ROTC. By bringing back ROTC to the nation’s elite universities and other universities outside the South and Midwest, there would be a lot more opportunities for students to join ROTC, and they would add up to much more diversity as far as the officer corps is concerned, which we would view as a good thing.  While some of the Ivies have dwindling numbers of ROTC cadets, the number is nontrivial, and it is also important to consider the possibility that declining numbers reflected an essentially hostile stance toward the military. By brin[g]ing ROTC back to the nation’s elite campuses, there could be more people willing to join as the culture changes from hostility to acceptance. And even if there are not that many cadets, even a few can have a large impact on a group. After all, the ROTC group at the University of Wisconsin is small relative to the large size of the student body, but nearly everyone we talked to had some exposure to ROTC, if only though its symbolic function.

Read the whole interview here.