After 4 decades, Harvard opens door to ROTC

“I am very pleased that more students will now have the opportunity to serve their country.” said Drew Faust, Harvard University president. “I am very pleased that more students will now have the opportunity to serve their country.” said Drew Faust, Harvard University president.
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / December 21, 2010

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Harvard University will welcome ROTC back to campus now that Congress has repealed a ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, university president Drew Faust said.

The move will end a four-decade standoff between one of the nation’s most prestigious universities and its armed forces. The tension began over the Vietnam War and continued in recent years as university administrators, faculty, and students objected to what they saw as discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Faust, the daughter of a decorated World War II veteran, said she expects to begin talking with military officials about bringing the program back to campus soon. Faust has repeatedly said that the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy was the final barrier to reinstating the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

“I look forward to pursuing discussions with military officials and others to achieve Harvard’s full and formal recognition of ROTC,’’ she said in a written statement. “I am very pleased that more students will now have the opportunity to serve their country.’’

A Pentagon spokeswoman said it is too early to say whether the decision could result in a ROTC unit being established on campus, but student interest and the military budget are two potential factors.

“It is premature to speculate,’’ said Eileen Lainez, the spokeswoman. “Services must maintain a delicate balance of units, cadre manpower, and officer production in light of fiscal constraints and competing wartime requirements.’’

Currently, 19 Harvard students are in ROTC in all military branches, but they participate via a program on the nearby MIT campus. That program also serves ROTC students from seven other schools, including Tufts, Wellesley, and Lesley.

While Harvard officials would not elaborate on what formal recognition would entail, advocates said they would like the university to set aside office space on campus for ROTC students to gather, take a more active role in enrolling veterans and others interested in the military as students, and promote the military as a legitimate career option for its graduates.

“At Harvard, ROTC has been like the crazy uncle in the attic: We know he’s up there but we don’t want to tell anyone that he’s there,’’ said Paul E. Mawn, a 1963 Harvard graduate and retired Navy captain who is chairman of Harvard Advocates for ROTC.

A potential barrier to Harvard getting its own unit is lack of student interest, Mawn said. Until several years ago, he said, students were not even allowed to list ROTC as an activity in the yearbook or post related fliers around campus.

Nicole Unis, a Harvard graduate student in Army ROTC, said that while she does not expect Harvard’s formal recognition of ROTC to change her day-to-day life, she hopes it will help the program recruit more students.

“It will certainly help to boost our image on campus, so hopefully we can get a few more cadets,’’ said Unis, 24, from Lanesborough in Western Massachusetts.

Harvard alumni subsidize student involvement in ROTC, paying MIT between $100,000 and $400,000 a year, a cost that Mawn said Harvard should pick up if the university is serious about recognition.

“It’s not just up to president Faust to bring ROTC back on campus,’’ Mawn said. “For ROTC to survive at Harvard, you need to have more people, and right now, there is not enough people to justify it. You can’t have a battalion with only five people in it.’’

Back in the early 1960s, more than 100 students in Mawn’s graduating class alone participated in ROTC, and more than 400 did so universitywide, he said.

Today, ROTC students take one class per semester on military science and leadership, making their way to MIT at least once a week. But interest among Harvard students has declined in recent years, according to Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Hall, commander of the Army ROTC battalion based at MIT.

Over the past 20 years, the battalion has typically counted between 15 and 20 Harvard undergraduates a year, Hall said. Currently, he said, only six from Harvard are enrolled. Over the past two years, the Army ROTC has enrolled only one Harvard freshman, while 11 members have graduated, he said.

“We had one person this year participate for half a semester. He said, ‘While I do have some interest in this, I really want to be a doctor. and I don’t see how this can fit into my future right now,’ ’’ Hall said. “How do you argue with that? We’re not trying to twist someone’s arm. . . . It’s a volunteer thing.’’

The program would also be costly for the Department of Defense, which would have to provide scholarships, facilities, and salaries of military officers to teach. Nationwide, 327 schools host ROTC units, and nearly 1,800, including Harvard, have cross-town affiliations with host units, according to the Department of Defense.

There is also the issue of whether it would be worthwhile for the military to invest in Harvard, given the low student interest and turbulent history, Mawn said.

“There is an attitude among some senior people in the Pentagon that elite Ivy League universities threw us out when we were at war, so why should we bother with them now,’’ he said. “It’s a lot cheaper to train an officer in Podunk, Okla., than spending $50,000 sending someone to Harvard or Yale.’’

But Harvard, as the nation’s oldest university, has a long history with the military and boasts more Medal of Honor recipients than any other university outside the military academies, Faust said in a speech last month.

“An ROTC program open to all ought to be fully and formally present on our campus, for it is also my belief that gays and lesbians should have full rights as citizens, including the privilege and honor of military service,’’ Faust said.

“I want to be the president of Harvard who sees the end of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ because I want to be able to take the steps to ensure that any and every Harvard student is able to make the honorable and admirable choice to commit him- or herself to the nation’s defense.’’

Bryan Bender of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Tracy Jan can be reached at