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Colleges, ROTC Confront Gays in Military Issue : Education: Clinton's policy may set the two interests on a collision course over the officer training program. At stake is an attempt to balance academic freedom and the armed forces' readiness plans.

September 20, 1993|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the halls of Ivy League Princeton to the sunny campus of the University of San Diego, a new academic debate is slowly taking shape.

President Clinton's policy on gays in the military--known colloquially as "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue"--is sparking discussions over ROTC, the Reserve Officers' Training Corps. Many believe that these discussions will spill over into the classroom, the boardroom and the academic senate this year as universities begin looking at the overall ramifications.

What if a ROTC professor notices that one of his students regularly reads the Advocate, a gay magazine? In the event of a military investigation, could an English teacher be required to turn over an essay from a ROTC student that details his or her homosexuality? How can a university rationalize its support of non-discrimination policies on campus, yet allow the ROTC to discriminate against gay ROTC students?

Such questions of academic freedom are unlikely to be resolved until the Department of Defense clarifies its policy and enforcement plans. But faculty, students and various academic groups across the nation are gearing up for a lively year.

In the last few years, more than 150 institutions of higher education across the country have adopted policies forbidding discrimination against homosexuals on campus, setting them on a potential collision course with the ROTC, which must follow the new policy.

Already, a number of faculty senates have approved resolutions asking their boards of trustees to evict the ROTC unless it stops violating the non-discrimination policies that cover every other aspect of university life.

At Princeton University, faculty members will soon vote on a proposal calling for the removal of an Army ROTC program because they believe the new policy inhibits the free exchange of truthful information on campus.

Locally, UCLA has been a front-runner in the debate. In 1990, Chancellor Charles E. Young sent a letter to the secretary of defense, voicing "direct concern" over discrimination against homosexuals by ROTC units housed on college campuses.

This May, UCLA's academic senate approved a resolution that advocated abolition of the ROTC because its policies violate the University of California's non-discrimination policy. In July, after Clinton announced the new policy, demonstrators organized by UCLA students marched from the Federal Building in Westwood to the ROTC building on campus, chanting their opposition to the ROTC and "don't ask, don't tell."

The debate is even hitting more conservative campuses, such as the Catholic-run University of San Diego. The "don't ask, don't tell" policy has spurred Joe Colombo, an associate professor of religious studies there, to draft a motion he hopes to take before the academic assembly this fall asking the university to add sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy.

Watching closely over these developments will be conservative groups, whose members say they are prepared to launch counter-protests as pro-homosexual rights and anti-ROTC demonstrations unfold.

"Conservative groups are going to be watching it, they're going to be ready to participate in the dialogue that moves the issue forward," said Jeff Muir, a program officer at conservative Madison Center for Educational Affairs in Washington, which oversees a coalition of 70 right-of-center campus newspapers.

The Reserve Officers' Training Corps commissions college graduates to become military officers, providing top recruits with four-year scholarships of up to $8,000 annually or 80% of their college tuition, whichever is higher. About 60,000 college students serve in Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC units across the country.

Already, the ROTC has stopped asking potential recruits during pre-application interviews if they are gay. Under the new policy, which takes effect Oct. 1, only blatant homosexual conduct can trigger an investigation, although the definition of such behavior remains fuzzy.

Many gay and lesbian activists claim that ROTC officials are treading lightly because they are aware of the sentiment against them. "They don't want to do anything to invite unfriendly review," said a former ROTC cadet from UCLA who is gay. "They're going to be real, real careful before they do anything to violate a student's academic freedom and spark a test case."

The issue is a nettlesome one even for the staunchest advocates of "don't ask, don't tell," who also strive to balance academic freedoms with military values.

"Obviously as an institution of higher learning, we're also interested in developing the thought processes of our students by encouraging the flow of information," said Maj. Keith Trohoske, a spokesman for the United States Military Academy at West Point.

"Quite frankly, I would offer you that the possibility does exist somewhere of a chilling effect due to homosexual orientation," Trohoske said. "I can see how some people can feel that they are limited."

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