Repeal of U.S. armed forces’ gay ban prompts universities to reconsider restrictions on military presence
Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs are regaining their place in the sun at American University and other college campuses where the politics of Vietnam and gay rights kept them in the shadows for decades.
ROTC programs — college-based U.S. military officer training programs — were once a mainstay at most American colleges. But as student-led protests against the Vietnam War swelled across the country in the late 1960s, colleges began to distance themselves from the programs. Harvard University and other schools in the Ivy League went so far as to expel ROTC altogether.
More recently, the programs fell victim to opposition to the now defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which banned gays from serving openly in the U.S. military. Many of these universities have changed their stances on ROTC in recent years, particularly after Congress repealed the law last year and officially ended it on Sept. 20. Harvard, Columbia and Yale all reinstated their on-campus ROTC programs earlier this year.
AU never officially banned ROTC. In fact, the number of AU ROTC students increased from 12 in the fall of 2000 to 53 this semester, according to McKendree J. Whitney, Jr., AU’s consortium coordinator. After decades of distancing itself from these programs, the university began to make ROTC a bigger part of campus life this past spring.
AU kept ROTC ‘at arm’s length’
The U.S. military has a long history of cooperation with AU — troops trained and conducted chemical weapons testing on campus during World War I and did bomb disposal training there during World War II. Despite this history, ROTC has never had a huge on-campus presence, according to Brett Atanasio, chairman of the AU student government’s university-military relations committee.
Members of AU’s student government had attempted to fix some of the problems ROTC faced in previous years, even issuing a proclamation urging administration action to give ROTC more access. These efforts repeatedly failed to rectify the issue.
Brett Atanasio, now the speaker for AU’s undergraduate senate, joined the student government’s military relations committee in the spring of 2010. A ROTC student in one of his classes soon approached him.
“He said ‘Look, we get a really raw deal, and we could use your help,’” Atanasio said.
Atanasio soon found himself in charge of the committee. He decided the committee should work on AU’s military-related policies — including its ROTC stance. Atanasio and fellow members of the committee returned to campus that fall and “hit the ground running.”
They met with AU officials and students to get a sense of their willingness to change the university policy on the issue. Once officials agreed to grant ROTC access in early November, the committee put a bill forward to the undergraduate senate.
By the time the committee introduced the bill, many believed the U.S. Senate would follow the House of Representatives’ lead in repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” removing the main issue driving opposition to ROTC. That chamber eventually voted 65-31 to repeal the military’s gay ban on Dec. 18, 2010.
Atanasio had deliberately tried to distance the ROTC bill from the wider debate over “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but he said the perceived momentum in the direction of repeal likely helped the committee’s case for ROTC access.
“It certainly neutralized opposition,” Atanasio said.
The only major opposition came from AU Queers and Allies, a student LGBT group. Members of the group were concerned that the committee had not consulted Queers and Allies when they were writing it, Tonei Glavinic, the group’s executive director at the time, said in a recent interview.
The bill passed with 19 senators voting in favor. Two abstained because they too believed Queers and Allies had not been properly consulted.
The bill’s passage allowed ROTC to get access to campus facilities and AUTO vehicles during the spring 2011 semester. It also made it possible to have military science classes on campus if ROTC requests classroom space.
AU students have participated in ROTC through programs at other area universities since the mid-1960s. Like AU, these colleges also belong to a consortium of D.C.-area colleges and universities that allows students from each member school to take classes at other member institutions and access other members’ library materials. AU students currently train with the Georgetown University Army ROTC — popularly known as the Hoya Battalion — and the Howard University Air Force ROTC Detachment 130.
But AU kept ROTC “at arm’s length” for decades over one issue or another, Atanasio said. Like other universities, opposition to ROTC access at AU first flared over Vietnam and later over the issue of gays in the military. Student and faculty groups attempted to get AU to completely ban ROTC from campus over that issue in the years immediately before “don’t ask, don’t tell” became law, according to reports in The Eagle, AU’s student newspaper. Then-AU President Joseph Duffey ultimately decided not to institute a total ban.
Officials wanted to be able to say they had not technically banned ROTC from campus — something that would have caused AU to lose its federal funding, Atanasio said. At the same time, they did not want to appear to be embracing an organization they believed violated the university’s anti-discrimination policy.
Cadet 2nd Lt. Michael Krant, leader of the Hoya Battalion’s AU platoon, said not having access to campus resources in past years was difficult for the AU cadets. They were unable to use campus facilities for mandatory activities such as physical training — at least three times a week — and the monthly Army Physical Fitness Test. Cadets needed to be ready to commute to Georgetown’s campus starting at 5:30 a.m. so everyone would be able to fit into senior AU platoon leaders’ cars and get to Georgetown’s campus for the start of physical training at 6:30 a.m., according to a student government report.
AU cadets had to use their personal vehicles because they were not allowed to use the American University Transportation Organization (AUTO) vehicles that other campus groups were able to access, reportedly because consortium classes are not allowed to use AUTO vehicles. This also presented a problem because cadets were not able to take their military science courses at AU — they needed to go take those at other consortium schools, according to the report.
AU students “have had full opportunity” to participate in ROTC through the Georgetown and Howard programs, according to Phyllis Peres, AU’s senior vice provost and dean of academic affairs.
“Since the ROTC students neither belong to a campus ‘student organization’ nor to a program at AU itself, there was some question as to sponsorship of events or even setting up a table in MGC,” she said in an e-mail.
Cadets’ AU access ‘helps out the program’
After negotiating with AU’s administration and a push in the undergraduate senate, the student government rectified some of the major issues ROTC students faced last fall (see sidebar for a full account of what happened). ROTC got access to campus facilities and AUTO vehicles during the spring 2011 semester. They are also able to have military science classes on campus if ROTC requests classroom space.
Three times a week, members of the Hoya Battalion’s AU platoon can sleep a little later before physical training than they could last fall. They now assemble at 6:30 a.m. on AU’s athletic fields and tennis courts for physical training instead of driving to Georgetown. One recent Friday, they jogged to nearby Battery Kemble Park — the remains of a Civil War fort — before returning to campus for a series of cool-down exercises. If they need to go to Georgetown, they are able to use AUTO vans — and they pay the same fees for the service as any other group.
Krant said he appreciates ROTC getting more access to the campus.
“It definitely helps out the program,” he said.
The Hoya Battalion likes to utilize facilities at all of the cadets’ universities if possible, said U.S. Army Capt. Richard Hull, the battalion cadre’s executive officer.
“This makes it more equal for all cadets,” he said.
The Hoya Battalion has not had any problems with its access to the university thus far, Krant said.
If the Georgetown or Howard programs do encounter issues, it will now be because of university bureaucracy. But rather than needing to seek out a variety of different people to address concerns, ROTC now works directly with the vice provost for undergraduate studies, Peres said.
“A lot of other organizations know how to deal with the bureaucracy because they’ve had to for a long time,” Atanasio said. “With ROTC there hasn’t been a need for that because they haven’t been allowed to do that.”