ROTC's return

By Editorial
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 9:06 PM

IN NOVEMBER, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly stood before an audience in St. Louis and spoke from the heart about the disconnect between the lives and experiences of members of the U.S. military - and those of the civilians they are defending. The armed forces are at war and have been for a decade, but "we" as a nation are not. "One percent of Americans are touched by this war," Gen. Kelly said. "Then there is a much smaller club of families who have given all." Gen. Kelly knows whereof he speaks: His son and fellow Marine, Robert, gave his life while serving in Afghanistan. The unhealthy civilian-military gap in American society has caused Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to express his fear "that the American people will no longer know us, and we won't know them."

And so we welcome Harvard's decision to allow the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) back on its campus, 40 years after banishing it in protest over the Vietnam War. Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust acted after the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law, which prevents gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

Now, at least, Harvard will have an ROTC office and a faculty sponsor; athletic fields will be available for ROTC activities. Only Navy ROTC will participate at first, though the university and the other service branches are still talking. As before, Harvard ROTC students must take courses at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, unless and until the Harvard faculty votes to allow them on their campus. But Harvard will start paying MIT the cost of taking in its students; previously, the tab of $100,000 per year had been picked up by alumni donations.

Some credit belongs to President Obama, a Harvard Law alumnus who urged an end to the Ivy ban during the 2008 campaign and in this year's State of the Union address. His administration should push the other Ivy League institutions that don't have ROTC - Yale, Brown and Columbia.

Once the Ivy taboo is gone, the nation's military and its universities can reengage on the subject of how best to support student achievement and military manpower needs in the new educational and security environment of the 21st century. Indeed, Harvard's restoration of ROTC comes at a time when some experts are questioning the role and design of the program, whose origins lie in the build-up to World War I. Former Navy secretary John Lehman and Professor Richard Kohn have argued that it should be replaced with a program that offers competitive four-year scholarships good at any institution, in return for a commitment to National Guard service during college and four years on active duty after graduation. Whatever Congress and the Pentagon decide, they should be able to count on the good-faith counsel and support of everyone in higher education.

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