Harvard University student ROTC midshipmen Evan Roth, from left, Colin Dickinson and Catherine Philbin walk past Dunster House on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
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NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Yale sophomore Andrew Hendricks has gotten used to receiving strange looks when he crosses the Ivy League campus in his Air Force uniform.
Hendricks, the only Air Force cadet at Yale, wears the uniform on days he drives to the University of Connecticut to train with the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a program that had been barred from his university until faculty agreed to welcome it back beginning next fall. Judging from the reaction of Yale students, he does not expect much of a stir when cadets start conducting drills amid the Gothic buildings in New Haven.
“I never get anything negative,” said Hendricks, 19, of Fairfax Station, Va. “I think it’s mainly that people are really curious because they don’t see a lot of military influence on campus.”
Four decades after Vietnam War protesters cheered the departure of ROTC programs from some Ivy League universities, their return is bringing little more than a symbolic change to campuses where a new generation of students is neither organizing against them nor lining up to enlist.
Yale, Harvard and Columbia all signed agreements this year to bring back ROTC. The antagonism with elite universities faded with the end of the draft, and much of the lingering opposition to the military dissolved with last year’s repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy that banned gays from serving openly in the armed services. The universities said the policy violated non-discrimination rules for campus organizations.
A tiny number of students at these schools pursue ROTC — a total of three at Yale and five at Columbia do so through off-campus arrangements — and those numbers are not expected to rise dramatically anytime soon. But the agreements to revive ROTC are important to the schools, which once produced many of America’s most decorated military officers, and the armed services, which are regaining a presence at some of the country’s best-known universities.
Officials are excited about ROTC because it offers students another path to national leadership, the dean of Yale College, Mary Miller, said in an interview. She said the administration was influenced by appeals from President Barack Obama, who used his State of the Union address to call on universities to engage more directly with the military, and a survey by Yale’s student government that found support for ROTC.
“We hope by making a path to military leadership available on campus, that students will pursue it in part because the opportunities for that leadership come so early in military careers. It has a strong youth culture component, which has been quite striking to me,” Miller said.
The ROTC program, which was founded in 1916, has 490 host units, most of them concentrated in the South and Midwest. Students receive scholarship money in return for agreeing to military service after graduation.
In the years surrounding World War II, thousands of soldiers and sailors trained on Ivy League campuses. But last year, only 53 students from the conference’s eight universities were commissioned through ROTC programs.
Yale has agreed to host Naval and Air Force ROTC detachments next fall. Air Force officials say it is too early to assess how many might enroll, and Navy officials say they are hoping at least 15 freshmen, from an incoming class of about 1,300, will attend Yale next year on Naval ROTC scholarships.
The change is likely to be even less visible at Harvard and Columbia, where Naval ROTC gained formal recognition but students are expected to continue training at nearby campuses. At Harvard, which has nine midshipmen training at other Boston area schools, the Naval ROTC director said it would not make sense to create a new detachment.
“You need some type of sufficient numbers to be able to have a battalion and meaningful leadership roles, and nine does not cut it,” Capt. Curtis Stevens said. “You can barely man a color guard with nine.”
Regardless of the numbers, he and other advocates said it is important to the military to be represented on elite campuses.
“Symbols matter, and the symbolism of America’s leading universities declaring or even implying that there is something illegitimate about serving your nation in uniform was shameful. Fortunately, we’ve now gotten over it,” said Graham Allison, director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense.
Stanford University’s faculty also voted this year to invite ROTC back to campus, but it has not reached agreements with any of the service branches. Other prominent schools including Princeton, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania already host units.
But there is still some resistance in the Ivy League. Brown University’s president, Ruth Simmons, said this week that she continues to back the school’s policy of denying ROTC recognition as an academic program.
A music professor at Brown, Jeff Todd Titon, said many on the faculty feel there is no place for the military at a liberal arts college.
“The military is a chain of command organization where obedience is required, and that’s just antithetical to our ideals and goals,” he said.
Susanna Kotter, a Yale junior from Boston, has concerns about sexual violence in the military, but she said having future officers on campus could help her learn about an institution that is not part of her daily life.
“If that will elicit more conversation about the Army, I’m OK with it,” she said.
The bans’ reversal marks a renewal of long military traditions at Yale, which had 25 graduates serve as generals for the Union Army during the Civil War, and Harvard, which has produced more Medal of Honor recipients than any institution outside the service academies.
Hendricks is looking forward to dropping the three-hour weekly commute to Storrs when ROTC comes to New Haven, and he also thinks it will make him feel more at home on his own campus.
“Knowing that I’ll be doing this for Yale, I’ll feel more school pride,” he said.