Harvard, Navy to sign ROTC pact

Repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy was key

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By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / March 4, 2011

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Fulfilling a long-stated desire to bring ROTC back to campus, Harvard University president Drew Faust today will sign an agreement with the Navy to officially recognize its Reserve Officer Training Corps, two months after repeal of a ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.

The agreement, to be signed in a ceremony this afternoon with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, will reestablish ROTC’s formal presence on campus for the first time in four decades, signaling an end to tensions between one of the nation’s most prestigious universities and US armed forces, an issue in play since the Vietnam War.

“Our renewed relationship affirms the vital role that the members of our armed forces play in serving the nation and securing our freedoms, while also affirming inclusion and opportunity as powerful American ideals,’’ said Faust, the daughter of a decorated World War II veteran, in a written statement. “It broadens the pathways for students to participate in an honorable and admirable calling, and in so doing advances our commitment to both learning and service.’’

Harvard’s full recognition of Naval ROTC is expected to start this summer, upon final implementation of the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy, university officials said.

Harvard will appoint a director of Naval ROTC and has agreed to provide the Navy with office space and access to classrooms and athletic fields. Students will continue to take military science classes at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said a university official familiar with the arrangement.

“It’s entirely up to the Navy,’’ the official said. “If they want to have activities and classes here, they have the opportunity to do that here now. They have the space.’’

The Navy has determined that maintaining the MIT ROTC consortium, which has existed for decades and also includes students from Tufts University, is the most efficient and effective way to administer the program, Harvard officials said.

The university will begin making payments to MIT to cover the costs of its students’ participation. The amount has not been determined, but currently, a group of Harvard alumni pays MIT between $100,000 and $400,000 a year to subsidize Harvard ROTC students’ participation.

Naval ROTC’s return to Harvard is “good for the university, good for the military, and good for the country,’’ Mabus said in a written statement. “Together, we have made a decision to enrich the experience open to Harvard’s undergraduates, make the military better, and our nation stronger.’’

One Harvard professor, though, said the university should go a step further and woo the military to establish a separate ROTC unit at Harvard.

“Just inviting ROTC back to campus is not enough. We have to sell Harvard to the military,’’ said Kit Parker, an engineering professor and Army major who has served three tours in Afghanistan.

“There might be some hard feelings in the Department of Defense and frankly, I don’t blame them,’’ he added. “We need to put something on the table and say we’re going to make this worth your while, because we can help you build better commissioned officers than other schools.’’

The ongoing wars require a “soldier-scholar,’’ Parker said, someone who can simultaneously fulfill both roles.

Parker said that ROTC students have traditionally had it tough at Harvard because they are required to make their way to MIT in the early mornings for physical training and return for grueling academic commitments.

“Logistically, it’s not easy,’’ said Parker, who was named by Faust to head an implementation committee to explore ways to enhance the experience of ROTC students.

Harvard has 20 students participating in ROTC in all military branches, 10 of whom are in Naval ROTC. Having classes and dedicated ROTC facilities on campus could help the military recruit more students, he said.

“This will allow us to reach into the demographics that we want at Harvard, men and women committed to national security,’’ Parker said. “It’s good for the country that the Ivies get a little skin in the game in this fight.’’

Harvard officials are continuing discussions with other branches of the armed forces about reestablishing formal ties. MIT also hosts ROTC units for the Army and Air Force, with students from eight other area colleges participating.

“This is a great first step for reestablishing a relationship with the military and putting the past behind us,’’ said Victoria Migdal, an Army ROTC cadet who is president of the Harvard ROTC Association that represents all military branches. “We can increase our presence on campus and let students know that the military is an option for them.’’

Harvard’s ties to the military date back to its founding as America’s first college in 1636, the same year the Massachusetts Bay Colony formed the National Guard. The university was one of the six original partner institutions of Naval ROTC in 1926.

The agreement with the Navy will be signed at the historic Loeb House, which had been the university president’s house during World War II, when then-president James Bryant Conant turned it over to the Navy for a training program to supplement its force of commissioned officers.

Tracy Jan can be reached at