Quick, name an aspect of military policy that Obama and McCain agree on completely. It's not the war in Iraq or the best way to handle Iran. No, both candidates think Columbia University should bring back its ROTC program, as they both said earlier this month.
Columbia hasn't had ROTC since the late 1960s, when popular opinion at the university turned against military presence on campus. Now, the school's non-discrimination policy keeps the ROTC off campus, which, like the rest of the military, has a "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding LGBT soldiers.
I wish I could say unequivocally that although I'll be voting for Obama, I can't back him up on this one.
Unfortunately, the situation is more complex than that.
Let's take a look at our own University. Penn currently has a Navy ROTC unit. And Penn also has a non-discrimination policy, which, like Columbia's, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
But some Penn students fund their education through the military, and Penn, under the Solomon Amendment, stands to lose almost $500 million in federal money if it bars military recruiters - or ROTC - from campus.
Moreover, College junior and Lambda Alliance chairman Dennie Zastrow made a good point when he paraphrased a gay Penn grad student who was in ROTC as an undergrad: "If you get rid of ROTC on dynamic, prestigious campuses like this, then officers will only be trained in the military. If they are trained here, they could end up being more progressive-minded and less homophobic."
Penn won't get rid of ROTC any time soon. The University has made clear that one of the primary reasons it retains the program is to allow students another opportunity to pay for a Penn education. At a school as costly as this, that's a major concern.
As repugnant as Department of Defense policy is, I can't conscionably advocate that people who want to go to Penn, but can't pay, have to give up a good education - or worse, first become an enlisted soldier and face combat to get here.
However, "it's not just that it's on campus," said LGBT Center director Bob Schoenberg. He believes the University financially subsidizes the program, which goes above and beyond our legal obligation to have the ROTC on campus.
"Other organizations, like Hillel and the Christian Association, rent from the University" or are self-funded, he said. ROTC may benefit some students, he argues, but so do these other organizations - and Penn's not paying them to be here.
What's the solution? How can we reconcile our moral imperative not to support discrimination with the need to make Penn more accessible to working-class and middle-class students?
First, we can continue to expand our financial-aid offerings so that every student who gets into Penn can afford to come without joining the military, unless he or she legitimately wants to serve.
Second, if we're subsidizing ROTC's presence in any way, we need to stop. Period.
Third, the University should continue to take an active and public stand against don't ask, don't tell.
With encouragement from the LGBT community, President Amy Gutmann spoke out against the policy at the April University Council meeting.
NROTC, for its part, will only say, "Our goals of developing both the intellect and leadership of our midshipmen are totally compatible with the University of Pennsylvania."
None of this would be necessary, of course, if higher-education weren't so damn expensive, or if the Department of Defense just changed its misguided and outdated policy.
LGBT folks can serve just as competently in the military as anyone else.
Here's hoping that the next election will make this debate obsolete.
Meredith Aska McBride is a College junior from Wauwatosa, Wis. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Radical Chic appears every Tuesday.Comments powered by Disqus
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