CONGRESS’S REPEAL of “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ won’t just pave the way for countless patriotic Americans to serve their country. It could also help repair relations between some of the nation’s elite universities and the military at a time when each side could benefit from closer ties with the other.
Since the 1960s, Harvard and the military have had a tense relationship — first over student opposition to the Vietnam War, which first drove recruiters from campus, and then over the Pentagon’s policies restricting the roles of women and excluding openly gay people altogether. This tension led to the seemingly permanent withdrawal of the military’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program from Harvard and other top universities such as Yale and Columbia, sparking a decades-long culture-war debate over the place of the military on college campuses. (Contrary to popular belief, there aren’t actual ROTC bans in place at these universities, as this would render them ineligible for federal funding under the 1994 Solomon Amendment.) But now that “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ is on its way out, Harvard President Drew Faust this week stressed her willingness to welcome ROTC back into the fold at Harvard. She should continue to reinforce the gesture, and the military should quickly accept.
No move is imminent, as there are remaining logistical issues that the university has to work out with the military. But Faust’s show of receptiveness, which looks to be replicated at other universities with historically tense relations with the military, is a positive step. Bringing ROTC back would prove that the universities’ steadfast stances had been the product of honest and open concerns about discrimination, rather than an expression of reflexive anti-military sentiments. Students would have a better chance to serve their country, and the Pentagon would find itself with a new source of highly educated recruits at a time when its need for men and women with special training is at an all-time high. Whether in foreign languages or science, the skills learned at top universities are increasingly applicable to the military.
The universities’ anti-ROTC policies were justified during the long period when the military discriminated against gay and lesbian service members. But now that that policy has fallen by the wayside, the universities — and, for its part, the military — should acknowledge that as the “facts on the ground’’ change, so too should the relevant policies. It would make both sides stronger.