Army ROTC needs more boots on more campuses

By John Renehan
Sunday, July 4, 2010

The military vs. elite universities. It's a long-standing conflict that got some air time last week at the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, who, as dean of Harvard Law School, enforced a school policy restricting military recruiters on campus. Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said that Kagan's stance "punished the military and demeaned our soldiers as they were courageously fighting two wars overseas." The nominee was held up as a representative of an out-of-touch academic elite that views the burdens carried by ordinary Americans -- burdens such as military service -- with detachment and even disdain.

I've spent time in both the academic and military worlds. And there is some truth to the "out of touch" critique. But when it comes to the minimal military presence at many universities, the academy has a partner in crime: the U.S. Army itself.

In the past two decades, the Army has shrunk the resources devoted to its Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs -- a primary source of new officers -- at colleges in a number of states and large urban areas. According to public Army documents, the reductions were particularly sharp in the Northeast, which had 50 ROTC programs in 1987. That number is down to 27 today.

These closures were part of post-Cold War drawdowns and budget cutbacks, but the selective pattern of the reductions amounted to a nationwide realignment of ROTC resources.

Army ROTC works with an annual budget of $577 million to serve the entire country, according to the Army Cadet Command, the unit that administers ROTC; it can't be everywhere.

But today Army ROTC programs are concentrated in the South and the Midwest at the expense of more populous and diverse metropolitan areas. As of 2004, according to an analysis of military data from the nonpartisan Population Reference Bureau, those two regions produced 59 percent of new Army officers.

A clear example of this shift is New York City. For the past 19 years, the city of 8 million people has been served by only two Army ROTC programs within its five boroughs, at Fordham University in the Bronx and St. John's University in Queens, which together receive roughly the same resources as the ROTC program at Texas A&M. Though the St. John's and Fordham student populations combined are just under 23,000 to Texas A&M's 38,000, those programs serve what's known as the entire "catchment" area of New York. That is the largest university student population in the country -- 605,000, according to the Census Bureau -- but in 2006, the New York City programs graduated only 34 new Army officers. The Army also offers ROTC programs at Seton Hall and Rutgers universities, in New Jersey, and at Hofstra University, in Long Island, to serve the New York area, but the lengthy commute time makes them unrealistic for many students in the city.

Alabama, with 4.7 million residents, has 10 Army ROTC programs -- the same number it had before the wave of closures began in 1989. Next door, Mississippi, with a population of 2.9 million, has five ROTC programs and has lost only one since '89. Utah and South Dakota both are home to three ROTC programs.

But in more urban areas, the programs have been scaled back. Pittsburgh and Chicago have each seen ROTC programs cut from three to one; New Jersey, from seven to three.

This is not simply a result of a long-perceived hostility to the military in cities or on elite campuses. Apart from several instances of Ivy League schools turning their backs on ROTC, in most cases the military has not been ejected. Some schools that once hosted programs would welcome them back.

The Army Cadet Command indicates that it would like to increase ROTC presence in cities. "Metropolitan areas are a focus of the United States Army Cadet Command," said spokesman Mike Johnson. "Universities in urban areas offer unique diversity that the Army seeks. Cadet Command is reviewing options to expand access and opportunities in metropolitan areas."

Privately, however, officers in charge of recruiting have said that it is cheaper to recruit cadets in places such as Texas and Alabama. The costs of expanding ROTC in places such as New York are excessive, they have said, and universities there have insufficient space or are not very welcoming.

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