Close the gap between college and country: Politics for the Upstate Student

Posted by Julia Grigel

College and military are meant to be separate entities — or aren't they? Barack Obama recently urged American colleges to open their doors to military recruitment officers and ROTC — or Reserve Officers' Training Corps — a program that helps students to finance their college education in return for a few years of military commitment after college. This follows Congress's repeal of the discriminatory Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy in December of last year. The few colleges that have refused to allow students to pursue an ROTC program in the past did so in protest of the anti-gay and lesbian policy.

President Obama's January 25 State of the Union Address was given in a spirit of bipartisanism, and encouraged cooperation and compromise. The statement on ROTC and military recruiters in American colleges was nestled in between Obama's commitment to finalize and implement the repeal of DADT (note the characteristically stoic response from the joint chiefs of staff), and his reassuring statement that despite the messiness of our version of democracy "there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth." It was a good assumption, given that he was addressing a room full of U.S. government employees.

Until this point in Obama's speech, I had been half listening, half reading "The Prince." But Obama's one-line statement got me to throw Machiavelli aside in protest: "I call on all our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and ROTC." Military recruiters and ROTC at Skidmore!?! It seems as though militarizing colleges would be like taking the arts, strapping them to a missile, launching it, spitting and then doing 500 victory push ups. Right?

Maybe not. Sure, college is about intellectual expansion, the pursuit of higher knowledge, the embrace of creativity. But does that mean we must attempt to be far removed from the concrete reality that is the military? Must we shun this reality from our campus in passive protest? Must we deny access to military recruiters because of our unease with the scope of the military?

In short: absolutely not. We should be aware, sometimes painfully so, of our nation's military endeavors. Our country's defense budget is the largest in the world, making up about 43 percent of worldwide military expenditures. About 1.5 million U.S. citizens serve actively in the military, with nearly another million in the reserves. The U.S. is fighting wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq and has troops stationed in more than 100 countries worldwide.

Obama's statement is a clear sign toward an extension of the olive branch, either from the armed forces to the colleges, or vice versa (or, hopefully, both). Of course, that doesn't mean we should simply approve of the military; we should be aware of the fact that our nation's military industrial complex has grown to a size that would have made Eisenhower vomit. We are all in some way part of the educated elite, and it is our responsibility to remain informed and awake. Our campus should, as Obama urges, open its doors to ROTC and military recruitment officers, so that the issue of the military can be part of our public discourse at Skidmore.

But most colleges' doors are already are open to the ROTC. Even at Skidmore, a student can pursue ROTC if he or she chooses, although most of us are unaware of it. Skidmore students can cross-register with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) or Siena College, where there are ROTC centers. Only one current Skidmore student is in ROTC right now — she has taken classes at Siena and now does physical training at RPI — and there has been only one other Skidmore student to pursue an ROTC program in the past. The option to take part in ROTC is simply not a big draw for most Skidmore students: the majority of Skidmore students never really consider joining the armed forces.

And should they? Not if they don't want to, of course. But the divide between the highly educated elites of our nation and the military is as detrimental as it is long-standing. Both sectors hold prejudices against one another; neither sector really wants or knows how to co-exist with the other. Since the end of the draft in 1973, the gap between the military and everybody else has become dangerously large, and this divide may be biggest for our generation, which has never seen a draft. Other than the few people that most of us know who are actually involved in the military, we have essentially no direct exposure to the reality of it.

So who is really responsible for making ROTC more accessible? It is the military's responsibility, as well as colleges'. After the repeal of DADT, colleges have no more reason to reject recruiters and ROTC programs. However, the military also must step up its commitment to reach out to institutions of higher education. Since the military absorbs much of the cost of education for its ROTC students, it is (understandably) hesitant to open up programs at expensive schools, despite the schools' academic prestige and rigour.

However, if Obama is serious about improving relations between our soldiers and the nation's future policymakers and civilian commanders, he should acknowledge the double-sidedness to the relationship. The armed forces would be wise to embrace the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell as an opportunity to turn a new leaf and forge a stronger relationship with colleges, and our president would be wise to require that they do so.

Julia Grigel is a senior government major who enjoys politics, especially when they're reactionary and/or German.

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