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Viewpoint: ROTC Revival at CUNY Requires Broad-Based Discussion

By Glenn Petersen
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One of the hallmarks of life at CUNY in the 21st century has been the relentless proliferation of strategic plans. Most of us, however, are unaware of how CUNY fits into the designs of the mother of all strategic planning, the Pentagon. Our university has been chosen as a strategic target, and I am not using that term metaphorically.

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In 2011 the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative Washington, DC, think tank, produced a report, “Underserved: A Case Study of ROTC in New York City” (tinyurl.com/AEI-ROTC). Its title is a bit deceptive, in that it is not simply about the military’s Reserve Officer Training Corps in New York City. Rather, the AEI report lays out a blueprint for re-instituting ROTC at CUNY – an idea AEI then promoted in an op-ed for the New York Post.

ROTC’s reappearance at CUNY began a year later. With much fanfare this spring, including a visit from General Colin Powell, City College reopened the ROTC unit it had closed for lack of interest in 1972; ROTC is also now in place at York College and Medgar Evers College. CUNY Central administration has also announced that an ROTC program will be established at the College of Staten Island, but CSI faculty are insisting that there must be a college-wide discussion before any decision is made.

‘Warrior-Scholar’?

The notion of re-establishing ROTC units on our campuses is an idea that requires careful thought and discussion, discussion that we have not thus far had. There are arguments to be made for developing closer ties between our citizens and the military, to be sure. On the other hand, in this time of an ascendant national security state, with the Guantánamo gulag still open and missile-launching drones hovering overhead in more places than we know, we have every reason to be wary.

It is not CUNY that is asking to open its own program within the Pentagon, but the other way around. So let’s start by looking at the reasons CUNY has been explicitly targeted for the revival of ROTC in the Northeast. As the AEI report explains, the US military is concerned that its officer corps is drawn “disproportionately” from the South and “inordinately” from among the children of its officer corps. To remedy this, the blueprint singles out CUNY’s student body as the population the US military desperately wants to attract: “The absence of ROTC units on urban campuses, especially in the Northeast, prevents the military from taking full advantage of their large, ethnically diverse populations. This is particularly true in the case of the City University of New York.” Continuing its explicit focus on our university, the report adds, “By overlooking institutions like
CUNY – among the top producers of African-American baccalaureates – the military is not accessing minority officers fully reflective of the population.”

Of equal relevance is the AEI report’s leadership model. Today’s national security environment requires “a new breed of officer: the warrior-scholar,” the AEI contends. Where should we look for this man on horseback? “In many respects, General David Petraeus, commander of the International Security Assistance Force and commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, is the model of a warrior-scholar,” said the AEI. Gen. Petraeus, of course, is widely hailed as a key architect of the Army’s counterinsurgency manual, with its “Human Terrain System” (HTS) teams that aim to put anthropologists to work directly beside combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The author of the AEI report, Cheryl Miller, clearly admires this part of Petraeus’s doctrine. Miller published an opinion piece in the Weekly Standard at about the same time the report was released, urging New York City university faculties to “work with the military to enhance the ROTC curriculum and develop rigorous offerings in such relevant fields as political science, anthropology, or economics” (tinyurl.com/AEI-ROTC-Weekly). But this warrior-scholar vision of militarized anthropology has been sharply opposed by anthropologists themselves. The American Anthropological Association (AAA) maintains that anthropologists are, for a host of reasons, ethically proscribed from this sort of work. Petraeus’s arrival at CUNY, with no discussion of such professional and ethical concerns, suggests that CUNY Central administration does not believe that anthropologists themselves have anything of value to say about the values and norms that should guide their own field.

The AAA’s concerns are elaborated in a 2007 statement by its executive committee (tinyurl.com/AAA-HTS), which explains that service in the military’s HTS teams can be expected to “conflict with [anthropologists’] obligations to the persons they study or consult, specifically the obligation, stipulated in the AAA Code of Ethics, to do no harm to those they study.” In conditions of war, it adds, it is often not possible for local residents (or soldiers) to give “voluntary informed consent,” as required by the AAA’s ethical code. Finally, “Because HTS identifies anthropology and anthropologists with US military operations, this identification…may create serious difficulties for, including grave risks to the personal safety of, many non-HTS anthropologists and the people they study.”

The AAA statement concludes that for all these reasons, service in Petraeus’s Human Terrain System Project is “unacceptable.”

Similar issues have been raised by the American Psychological Association regarding the participation of psychologists in military interrogation and whether this is consistent with psychologists’ ethical obligations and professional norms.

As ROTC is reintroduced at CUNY, it is presented as an educational program – military science – and thus falls within the faculty’s purview. But we have an obligation, to our students and to ourselves as scholars, to examine this concept of “military science” and whether the way the Pentagon defines it is consistent with our university’s mission.

Critical Thinking

If we are going to create a CUNY program devoted to study of the military and of war, what should it look like? Should its goal in fact be to train future US military officers – or is that too narrow and prescriptive? Can the faculty of a military science program include critics of the military as an institution? If not, what does that imply for academic freedom?

The military and academia have historically had somewhat different views on the value of argument and critical thinking. If a student enters a CUNY ROTC program as part of their enlistment in the military, and then through the development of their critical thinking skills and study of history decides that their enlistment was a mistake, will the military allow them to drop out? If not, what is our obligation to that student? What are the student’s financial obligations to the military? What is a counseling faculty member supposed to tell them?

There has been little discussion among CUNY faculty about whether ROTC will serve the educational and scholarly goals of our university. This parallels the lack of advance discussion of the Petraeus hire, where a high-paying job offer was made before a single faculty body had considered, much less approved, the idea.

But from the vantage point of the AEI report, the results to date could hardly be better. The general who wants to meld anthropology with combat operations is now teaching at the university whose student body is coveted by the military. And the growth of ROTC at CUNY is intended to fill the pipeline with recruits that the Pentagon views as a priority.

Cultural Diversity

As the AEI report explains, the military thinks CUNY’s students, with their extraordinary cultural diversity, lend themselves to the creation of a new kind of soldier: “As winning wars now involves winning ‘hearts and minds,’ military officers must be able to overcome cultural divides to interact effectively with indigenous leaders, security forces, and members of the local population.” Whatever role the AEI report did or did not play in CUNY’s decision-making, it’s clear that the military wishes to mine our student population, and thus reap the benefits of its celebrated diversity. But how will our students actually fare once they join?

The AEI report notes specifically that “New York City is home to one of the fastest-growing Muslim-American communities.” But one of our graduates enlisted in the US Army to serve as an Arabic translator, only to be denied entry to the translation program after completing basic training. This student was told that their rejection was due to having studied with the Muslim Student Association at Baruch. It is difficult to have much faith in the military’s claims about pursuing diversity under such circumstances. There are multiple economic, cultural and educational issues that the return of ROTC raises, but I will point briefly to just a couple more.

For many people, perhaps particularly among immigrant families, establishing ROTC at CUNY may be understood as CUNY approval of US military policy – or, at a minimum, an endorsement of the military as a good career option. This is problematic. Some of our students who join CUNY will go to war and die, some of them will kill innocent people abroad. Are we prepared to accept this responsibility?

At a very pragmatic level, if the US continues spending the vast amounts it does on its military, and CUNY is viewed as an important resource, then CUNY needs to understand what it’s a part of and how to negotiate for compensation. ROTC pays its students’ tuition and fees. At some schools, that’s well over $50,000 a year; at CUNY it’s about $5,000 – one-tenth of what the military pays elsewhere. If the CUNY community should ultimately decide that reinstating ROTC is the appropriate thing to do, then the University should not, in effect, be subsidizing the military in a time when our own budget is cut to the bone.

Vietnam Memories

I fought as a volunteer in Vietnam while I was still a teenager. I know that some of the things I learned then have helped make me a successful professional. Never a day goes by, though, that I am not deeply conscious of the part I played in a war that caused the deaths of millions of people, most of them noncombatants. A decision about ROTC, like life itself, is complicated, but the stakes for the University, for the faculty, and especially for our students are high and the repercussions will last for a long, long time. This is not something to be done by administrative fiat, but only by searching and respectful dialogue within the academic community. Because all CUNY students are eligible to become involved in ROTC on any CUNY campus, the return of ROTC is a matter that concerns all of CUNY and decisions about it should not be made piecemeal. This calls for university-wide deliberations. All of us at CUNY need to stop and reflect on where this seeming alliance between the military and CUNY is headed, before we move any further on this path that someone else has set us on.

Glenn Petersen is chair of the department of sociology and anthropology at Baruch College.