The Columbia University Senate voted on April 1, 2011 to lift the ROTC ban on campus. Columbia couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate date to pass this resolution. The 51 individuals who voted for this measure truly are April fools. Why? Because they allowed the program back on campus under the premise of “non-discrimination” after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT), while ROTC was first banned from Columbia in 1969 for contributing to the repugnant foreign and discriminative domestic policies of the United States during the Vietnam War.
Tensions grew exponentially between the student body and the ROTC on Columbia’s campus between 1965 and 1968. In 1967, some members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) discovered that the university was working with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), which was a think tank for the Department of Defense. This was part of the reason for the 1968 protests on campus. In the same year as the IDA discovery, the university planned to construct a gym in Morningside Park that offended the Harlem community by providing a “back door” to the gym for Harlem residents. This was the second contributing factor to the anti-war and anti-establishment protests on Columbia’s campus in 1968—the correlation between the treatment of African Americans in Morningside Heights, the Jim Crow South, and the battlefields of Vietnam. The poor—predominantly African-Americans—received “separate but equal” treatment on all three fronts. The military presence on campus understandably became a prime target for the 1968 protests. Yet in less than half a century, the history of this epic struggle against imperialism and exploitation of the poor has been whitewashed by the university.
It is frightening that the alumni allowed this resolution to be rushed through the University Senate by special interest groups without demanding a proper, robust discussion on why ROTC was banned in the first place. Still, maybe it is unfair to blame the alumni for not putting the kibosh on this resolution. After all, SDS disapproved of the kangaroo—University Senate—court. Faculty and the university administration have a supermajority of seats. How democratic is that? Alumni have a minority voice and are severely underrepresented with only 2 seats out of 108. How could these two delegates be expected to mobilize the vast alumni population to participate in the ROTC discourse? In short, the alumni who drove ROTC off campus in 1969 stood no chance against an administration that wants another cash cow for the university.
However, perhaps the most disconcerting part of all of this is the rationalization of some members of the Military Veterans of Columbia University (Milvets), student senators and individuals who have a vested interest in ROTC. Some members of Milvets argue that it is rational to let ROTC back on campus because it will allow more lower-income students to pay for their education at Columbia. But if the problem is high tuition, then why not lobby for reduced rates? Even more troubling is the fact that, others, like Columbia School of General Studies student senator and National Guardsman Jose Robledo, support ROTC‘s return to campus but naïvely doubt that the new financial relationship between the military and the university will erode Columbia’s autonomy.
Make no mistake about it—the consequences of this reckless decision are going to be serious and far-reaching. Don’t expect the corporate media to acknowledge this, let alone analyze the issue in exhaustive detail. Mainstream media made sure to quote former SDS and Weather Underground member Brian Flanagan in the coverage of the story to ensure that any criticism of the resolution will be equated to vindictive prejudice against U.S. service members. You have to love American “journalism.”
Nevertheless, the discriminatory policies in the military—the ones that actually got ROTC banned from campus in 1969—persist in society today. It’s called the Poverty Draft. Except instead of the stick (the draft), the government uses the carrot (the GI Bill) to solicit the underprivileged for military service. Columbia University’s message to the poor: Sure, we can give you access to an Ivy League degree. You just have to go risk life and limb for the profits of international bankers, the energy industry and defense contractors