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ROTC back at Harvard after 40 years

Navy is first branch to have privileges restored

Evelyn M. Hammonds, dean of Harvard College, laughed with Navy ROTC members at a campus ceremony in Cambridge. Evelyn M. Hammonds, dean of Harvard College, laughed with Navy ROTC members at a campus ceremony in Cambridge. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / September 21, 2011

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In a ceremony freighted with symbolism, Drew Faust, Harvard University president, lauded the Navy’s ROTC program and officially welcomed it onto campus yesterday, ending four decades of frosty relations between the university and the military and laying the groundwork for increased recruiting at the school.

The event, which unfolded with dozens of cadets and officers in their dress whites, happened the same day the US government formally ended the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’’ policy that barred gay and lesbian members of the military from openly acknowledging their sexuality. Harvard considered the policy discriminatory, and Faust had cited it as the major obstacle to revitalizing ROTC at the school.

Harvard students have always been able to serve as cadets, wearing uniforms on campus. But they had to go to MIT to attend classes in military strategy and theory. Harvard will now offer Naval ROTC officials access to its athletic facilities for training, and the university is furnishing the program with its own office.

College and military officials hailed the agreement, signed in March, as a significant milestone for the school and the armed forces.

“The revival of the relationship between Harvard and the Naval ROTC marks an important new chapter in the long and storied history of military service by members of the Harvard community,’’ Faust said.

Joseph Brennan, a freshman cadet, praised the school for fulfilling its long-stated promise to recognize ROTC upon repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’’ “I think it really says a lot about the university’s values that they stuck to their word,’’ he said.

But one alumnus said the relationship is not fully repaired. “To use a military analogy, I think this is a very important beachhead,’’ said Paul E. Mawn, a retired Navy captain and 1963 Harvard graduate. “But as far I’m concerned, the mission is not accomplished.’’

In some ways, the move is a return to an earlier era. In 1926, Harvard became one of the country’s first schools to host a Naval ROTC unit. Only the nation’s military academies have more Medal of Honor recipients among their graduates.

“I don’t think there’s any other civilian institution that has had such a profound influence on the Navy,’’ said Captain Curtis Stevens, commanding officer at a crosstown Naval ROTC consortium that includes some 120 students from several local schools, including Harvard.

But as the Vietnam War raged, tensions between the university and the military grew, as they did at many elite colleges. Though Harvard never banned armed forces personnel from campus - that would be illegal - it denied ROTC some privileges it previously had, starting in 1971. Those have now been reinstated.

The new agreement probably will have little immediate impact on Harvard’s 21 current ROTC students, nine of whom are in the Navy program, said Stevens. The school’s cadets will continue to attend military science classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. No new classes are scheduled to be offered at Harvard, and no new battalion will form in the near future - there is not enough student interest.

“It’s really about the numbers. You couldn’t have a viable unit just at Harvard with the students we have now,’’ Stevens said.

The new agreement applies only to the Navy. The Army and Air Force are hammering out similar contracts with Harvard.

“In the wake of [the Navy’s decision], quite frankly, the Army started working,’’ said Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Hackathorn, public affairs officer for the US Army Cadet Command. “It’s a matter of getting the details ironed out.’’

Hackathorn said he hoped an eventual agreement would mirror the Navy’s. “Let me go on the record as saying, ‘Good for the Navy,’ ’’ he said. “We consider this a positive step for the military in general.’’

But he added that building a full new unit would be challenging and costly. Starting one from scratch costs about $1.6 million, assuming a goal of commissioning 12 to 15 new second lieutenants a year.

“We want to extend and have more open discussion with all universities, but quite frankly, we’re in an environment of constrained resources,’’ Hackathorn said. “We can’t just blanket across the whole world and have a program everywhere.’’

Yet Mawn, who also heads the group Advocates for Harvard ROTC, said he would not be satisfied until the school had a robust military presence with scholarships targeted at veterans and more programs encouraging students to enlist.

“A quarter of my class served in the military, and about half of them were in ROTC. But the whole concept of what the military does is out of the scope of awareness of many of these undergraduates,’’ he said. “If Harvard wants to commit itself to excellence in all areas, I think ROTC ought to be among them.’’

The Harvard agreement is one of many among schools that have thawed toward ROTC the past year, largely because of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’’ Yale and Columbia universities have also announced they will extend new, formal recognition to ROTC on their campuses. At Yale, which has only five ROTC cadets, the agreement will extend to the Air Force as well as the Navy.

Brown University, however, may be a lone holdout. It has just three ROTC students. The school commissioned a review of its ROTC policies in the spring, and its president is expected to announce a decision in October. But many students at the school continue to oppose military policies as discriminatory, particularly against transgendered would-be recruits. “The historical context has certainly changed a great deal,’’ said Katherine Bergeron, Brown’s dean. “But the resolutions made by the faculty [in the 1960s] still seem very reasonable to us.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.