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February 3, 2012

Still off campus, ROTC soldiers on

Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) recruiter James McKinney (A.B. ’11) often wonders why more U of C students don’t want to become soldiers.

[img id="92358" align="left"/] A second-year at the Harris School of Public Policy, he is the Pentagon’s point man for getting U of C students to commute to Chicago’s only Army ROTC, at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). The turnout, as might be expected, is slim.

“There are only a few U of C students currently in the program. With all the benefits of involvement, there’s no reason why ROTC shouldn’t be [on campus] and have a greater role in the College,” he said.

ROTC trains college students to be future officers in the Army, Navy, and Air Force through academic classes, team-building and leadership exercises, and simulations of live combat situations. It allows students to study at their respective colleges while receiving the same training as full-time military personnel and students at the Service Academies.

Whether turnout at the U of C has always been low is uncertain, and officer recruitment has a disputed history at the University.

For reasons that remain murky even today, the military broke ties with many schools during the 1960s and 1970s. The U of C was one of them. Explanations have included spats with college administrators over academics, rising sentiments against the Vietnam War, and a deliberate choice by the military to prioritize recruitment in regions where students were more likely to enlist.

The prevailing narrative is that the U of C has never had an official ROTC presence on campus, but any information at all about the program here is difficult to find. World War I-era photographs depict students performing military drills on Stagg Field—the current site of the Regenstein Library—but most people, including President Robert Zimmer and Vice President for Campus Life Kim Goff-Crews, hold that the armed forces never had a formal presence, and that the University certainly never kicked it out.

The only ROTC option available to University students is at either of the city’s two sole ROTC programs: one for the Army at UIC, and one for the Air Force at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).

But according to administrators, ROTC presence is not the reason so few students have enlisted in the program. ROTC recruiters regularly table at RSO fairs on campus, and Goff-Crews said that she meets with new campus recruiters for all three ROTC branches. “[Recruiters] are at all student organizational fairs, they’re always there, so however many students want to join, they can,” she said.

What has kept ROTC from taking off, according to Vice President for Communications Julie Peterson, is student demand.

“There was never enough critical mass,” she said. “What we learned in the University’s history was that there wasn’t enough student interest for a formal ROTC program.”

However, if student interest is the issue, there is also a history of loud and active debate to contend with.

Up until the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) in December 2010, military recruitment on college campuses was a flashpoint for students. For instance, four students were arrested in 2006, while protesting the presence of the Marine Corps on campus, while several editorials and letters appearing in the Maroon that year excoriated the University for its apparent anti-ROTC stance.

Many of the arguments advocating for formalized ROTC training were directed toward administrators rather than the military, though they also recapitulated points that spring up in McKinney’s recruitment pitch.

The repeal of DADT took some of the ideological edge out of universities which opposed ROTC on moral grounds. Harvard University began offering ROTC this past fall after a decades-long hiatus, its president specifically citing the repeal as an impetus for the decision, and Yale University will reinstate its program for the incoming class of 2016.

McKinney sees hope for more student enrollment in the campus’s changing face, attributable to its expanded admissions process and acceptance of the Common App.

“Students on campus are being more responsive to ROTC and its goals, and we’re hoping to take advantage of that,” he said.

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