September 16, 2002

Spotlight On: 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

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One of the most famous photographs in The Sun’s history is of a group of students who would later become known as the “May Day 10” sitting on top of a Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) practice deck gun in May of 1969. The students were protesting the Vietnam War and the presence of recruiters on campus. The gun would be sold for scrap metal a few days later, the students would be arrested and the ROTC would continue training students.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, New York University and Stanford all decided to disallow ROTC’s presence on their campuses, but Cornell’s ROTC continued to survive.

Until 1964, two years of ROTC was mandatory for all male students, when student protests forced the University to eliminate the requirement. The Army ROTC has over 70 members this year, according to Cadet Battalion Commander Chris O’Brien ’03.

Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations, explained the survival and history of ROTC at Cornell.

“Part of our land grant heritage, which of course came out of the Civil War, is military science,” Dullea said.

ROTC’s presence, however, is problematic to some because of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue” policy, which seems contradictory to the University’s “Open Door, Open Hearts, Open Minds” mission statement, printed on mouse pads across campus.

“Cornell stands for civil discourse, reasoned thought, sustained discussion, and constructive engagement without degrading, abusing, harassing, or silencing others,” the mission statement reads.

In 1998, the Student Assembly (S.A.) passed a resolution to find a way to protect gay students in the ROTC program after two midshipmen were dismissed when they revealed their sexual orientation after being harassed by other members of ROTC.

“After the resolution was passed, a Task Force made up of students and faculty was formed to look over the actions of ROTC. From what I know, I don’t think any initiative came of that,” said Erica Kagan ’05, the representative to the S.A. for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning issues.

The ROTC is, however, facing protests on a national level because of the military’s policy on gay and lesbian service people, and the armed forces are fighting back.

After Harvard University removed ROTC from their campus during the Vietnam War, students continued to participate in ROTC through an exchange program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The program was funded largely by Harvard. In 1995, the Faculty Council voted to cut all funding for ROTC, citing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as discriminatory.

The decision came after an openly gay student was kicked out of ROTC, Harvard spokesperson Joe Wrinn told The Washington Times in an interview last October.

In 1996, Congress passed what is commonly known as the Solomon Act, which stated that federal funding was to be withheld from schools that do not allow recruiters to have “adequate access” to students. At Harvard, recruiters were asked to sign an anti-discriminatory policy paper, which they were consistently unable to sign, because of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Last month, Harvard Law School was found in violation of the Solomon Act, and the Air Force threatened to press charges. If found in violation, the entire university would have lost federal funding, which is estimated at $328 million. The law school agreed to allow the recruiters back on campus.

“I was ashamed to discover that Harvard has sold out. In the 1960s, Harvard activists risked being arrested by breaking in University offices to protest the war in Vietnam and the presence of ROTC on campus. 30 years later, today’s keepers of the flame would rather not lose federal funding than fight for their core beliefs,” Harvard alumnus Michael A. Temple, wrote in a Sept. 9 letter to the Harvard Crimson.

For one Cornell student, who wished to remain anonymous, the military’s policy hits close to home.

“I’m a cadet, and I’m gay. It’s scary because my ability to be a student here is pretty much dependent on the scholarship I get from ROTC,” he said.

The military’s policy does not only affect his life as a member of ROTC.

“I’m very close with a lot of my fellow cadets, but there’s this big part of my life that I can’t tell them about. Then I also start worrying about people on the rest of campus knowing,” he said.

Leaders of the gay community on campus, including Christopher Dial ’04, the co-president of OUTreach, offer resources to those gay students who are in the ROTC. According to Dial, that it is not enough.

“It’s also one thing for a student organization to address these issues, but we should follow in the footsteps of Cornell, not lead,” Dial said.

According to Chris O’Brien, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy does not actually come up that much.

“It comes up when the student body chooses to bring it up. At some point in out classes we touch on that, and we obviously talk about it,” he said.

He added that the policy is not Cornell’s decision.

“ROTC is part of the army, which is part of the military. We follow orders given by the commander-in-chief. The orders for ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ comes from the President [of the U.S.]. As a military unit we have to follow that. There may be some things that people disagree with, but the higher ideals of service keep most cadets in the program,” O’Brien said.

According to Dullea, there is little the University can do because the “policy is a national statute, and you have to follow the law.”

For Dial, where the policy comes from is not what’s important.

“I have no problem with having ROTC on this campus, so as long as ROTC lives up to the same standards that every other group has to live up to, namely an inclusive community which is in harmony with the diversity mission of the University,” he said. “I seriously doubt that they [ROTC] live up to this mission, but if they do, I’d like to know how I can get involved.”

ROTC is the only organization that offers merit-based financial aid at Cornell, according to Cornell’s ROTC website. Students can get scholarships that cover their entire tuitions.

“A lot off people I know really benefit from the programs, but having [ROTC] on campus makes me a little nervous because of the potential for harassment,” Kagan said.

Dial adds that he doubts the University will eliminate ROTC, for funding, communal, historical and scholarly reasons, but that he is interested in working with the program to address the needs of lesbian and gay students.

Archived article by Freda Ready