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Once a campus outcast, ROTC is booming at universities

Helped by the recession, more active recruiting and a sea change in student perceptions of the military, ROTC programs on college campuses are thriving. And some elite schools like Stanford and Harvard are welcoming ROTC back for the first time in decades.

June 01, 2011|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
  • ROTC enrollment officer Michael Pope, left, speaks with Kaitlyn Benitez-Strine, 17, at Stanford University.
ROTC enrollment officer Michael Pope, left, speaks with Kaitlyn Benitez-Strine,… (Dave Getzschman / For the…)

Reporting from Palo Alto -- On an early May morning 43 years ago, fire swept through Stanford University's Navy ROTC building, destroying a structure that had been damaged in another suspicious blaze just two months earlier.

No arrests were ever made in the two arson fires, but they came at a time of angry, sometimes violent demonstrations against the Vietnam War on college campuses nationwide. Those protests often targeted the closest symbol of the U.S. military, the Reserve Officers Training Corps — with more than 200 campus ROTC units reporting vandalism during that war.

Flash forward to a much different time.

On a recent afternoon, Stanford senior Ann Thompson wore her Army ROTC uniform with pride as she helped staff a recruiting table for the military training program at a campus activities fair. She chatted with visitors about the ROTC's scholarships as a few dozen students marched nearby to protest the program's likely expansion at Stanford.

"There definitely are people not supportive of ROTC, but we still have respectful conversations," said Thompson, 22, of Paso Robles. "I can't fathom anyone burning a building down."

Helped by the recession, more active recruiting and a sea change in student perceptions of the military, enrollment in ROTC programs on college campuses is booming.

Even with ongoing U.S. involvement in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya, participation in the program has surged 27% over the last four years — to 56,757 men and women, according to the Defense Department. The military boosted the number of ROTC scholarships to help expand the wartime officer corps, and the recession made the offers attractive to students.

Today's college students, who never faced a military draft and whose childhood memories include the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are more receptive than their parents' generation to seeing fellow students in uniform. Returning veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and are now enrolled in college also create a more sympathetic, and familiar, image of the military.

In another sign of the changing times, the congressional rescinding last year of the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays serving openly in the military has recently led Stanford, Harvard and several other elite universities to take steps to welcome the ROTC back to their campuses for the first time in 40 years.

On-campus military training still raises hackles for some. Yet even critics acknowledge that most current college students are willing to accept the ROTC.

Gay activist Marco Chan helped organize anti-ROTC rallies at Harvard this spring, focusing on the military's continuing ban against transgender individuals. A senior from Vancouver, Chan, 23, called the school's decision to restore the ROTC discriminatory: "To make a highly symbolic gesture, Harvard has thrown its own student body under the bus," he said.

But Chan said many Harvard students seemed sympathetic to the military. "They grew up in a post-911 world," he said. "The war on terror has been a part of their daily lives."

Jimmy Ruck, a 21-year-old Stanford senior and Army ROTC cadet from Millbrae, Calif., will join a military intelligence unit as a second lieutenant after he graduates next month.

"We are putting a face on the military, showing that we are not some faceless, heartless machine, that we are individual human beings and that we are doing this for a variety of reasons," said Ruck, who along with Thompson is one of 14 Stanford students who are enrolled in the ROTC but must train at other Bay Area campuses. "Some are doing it for leadership, for public service, or if you want to pay for your college."

Ruck applauded the April 28 Stanford faculty vote to invite the program back to the campus and said he hopes the university's small ROTC contingent will grow, especially if its cadets no longer have to travel elsewhere to train.

Experts say the recent change of heart by influential American universities will boost the prestige of the program, which was founded during the Civil War on the belief that the nation needs a well-educated officer corps imbued with civilian values.

"It shows historically that the military and civilian society are trying to bridge the gap," said Donald Downs, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and coauthor of a new book about the ROTC.

But those schools still will play a small role in the national ROTC, which never left most U.S. campuses. Nearly 500 units are in existence, and many other schools without their own programs send students to train at other area colleges, including Stanford's Army ROTC members training at Santa Clara University, Navy at UC Berkeley and Air Force at San Jose State. (ROTC scholarships can be worth as much as $43,000 a year at expensive schools; all recipients must then serve four years in the armed forces, with four more in the reserves.)

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