There are some issues about which we talk too much and do not listen enough.
The presence or absence of ROTC on the Harvard campus is one of these issues. This blog alone has gone back and forth on whether ROTC should come back, and there has been ample disagreement between the right and the left. The Crimson likewise can’t make up its mind—supporting ROTC reinstatement as an Editorial board and denouncing it in Op-Eds.
Students of every political persuasion seem to have weighed in on the ROTC question. Tomorrow the Harvard Political Union will host a student forum on the topic. President Drew Faust has spoken hopefully of ROTC reinstatement, and many interpreted President Obama’s State of the Union call for universities to open their doors to ROTC as a direct plea to Harvard. Everyone from that kid in your entryway to the President of the United States seems to have an opinion about whether or not ROTC should be on Harvard’s campus.
The symbolism inherent in the decision makes ideological disagreements unsurprising.
But when we let ourselves become blinded by symbolism and entrenched in our ideological views, we risk overlooking practical compromises that can solve real problems. The ROTC question is one such case.
ROTC students themselves have been conspicuously absent from the conversation. Perhaps no one has bothered to ask them what they want, perhaps ROTC students are more focused on their training than political bickering and symbolism, perhaps it is a little of both.
If you actually talk to ROTC students though, they betray some level of apathy to the brouhaha surrounding the issue. There are less than twenty of them, and there is no good place on campus for them to meet. Going to MIT is a hassle, but, logistically, it makes sense.
Still, it also makes sense for Harvard to make travel as easy as possible for ROTC students. Any quadling will tell you that transport across the river is a hassle. The school should make it as hassle free as possible for ROTC students if they are not going to provide space on campus for them. Buy a van or mini-shuttle. Train one of the students to drive it, or hire someone to do it. In the post-endowment-plunge world, Harvard likes to pretend to be poor, but the fact remains that it is one of the richest institutions on the face of the Earth. Find the money somewhere.
Symbolism matters. Harvard has long stood symbolically against the military and perceived American imperialism. It is my personal opinion that developing a space for ROTC on campus would symbolize the University’s solidarity with US service members and a respect for the institution of the US military, whatever its flaws. I realize, however, that some on our campus do not wish to associate Harvard with what they view to be a severely flawed and intolerant institution, and would rather project solidarity with other groups– say, the transsexual community. Providing transportation for ROTC students would allow the segments of the University that wish to protest the military to claim its exclusion from campus without substantially hurting the innocent ROTC students who have no say in military policy.
As a private institution, it is the University’s prerogative to make political statements. One could go so far as to say it is the University’s obligation as an intellectual community to debate these questions and to try to enact change through whatever means it has at its disposal.
But while we are all still debating, ROTC students are wasting their valuable time trekking to MIT and back. That is a problem, and it is a problem that can be easily fixed. We can continue to debate if Harvard should symbolically support or oppose the US military, but in the interim, we should at least support our own students.
photo credit: http://alum.mit.edu/pages/sliceofmit/files/2009/06/petraeuses-handshake_9879.jpg