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ROTC Brings the Military Home to CUNY

Kicked off campuses in the Northeast in the ’60s, ROTC is back appealing to the most vulnerable students.

A group of young men in the Junior ROTC in Tucson Arizona march in formation in the Veteran's Day Parade 2010 (Photo: Frank Tellez)

“So, you want to come inside the big scary bus?”

The Army recruiter delivers this line to me cheerily, like a used car salesman advising me to take it for a spin. He knows I’ve been talking for the better part of an hour to a handful of young upstarts distributing anti-Army recruitment flyers just a few feet away from his giant van, plastered with photos of young people dressed as astronauts and staring into microscopes. This is the sanitized, scientific image of military life that the recruiter, parked outside CUNY York College’s art center in Queens, is selling to students.

Inside the van, the air conditioner is blasting so hard I forget the oppressive heat outside – and instantly wish I’d brought a sweater. The interior is predictably kitschy, yet sleek – the future as a giant laser-tag park, with a blacked-out interior and only purplish LED panels to guide the way.

First, I am confronted by images flashing on five flat screen televisions. They tell a story of smoke and panic. My guide fills in the details, telling me there’s been a chemical attack and the Army has been brought in to restore order. Then he escorts me to the front of the bus.

Now, after more than 40 years, ROTC is back at CUNY as part of a broader shift to focus recruiting efforts on the North.

There I stand before what looks to be a videogame. It’s another screen, but this one displays a selection of military-grade weapons. I am asked to choose those that would be most useful in responding to the chemical attack I was just shown. I choose poorly, opting for a full-body exoskeleton that my guide later informs me is used in the mountains of Afghanistan to help redistribute the weight of items transported on the backs of soldiers. He shows me the series of guns and various bombs I should have chosen instead, and then he shows me out into the blinding summer light.

“See, that wasn’t so scary, was it?” he asks.

The bus I got into (and then left for the less virtual world) was a recruiting tool of the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), the college elective that prepares students for service in the military. ROTC currently operates at 1,100 colleges throughout the country (it also operates at a junior level at upwards of 1,700 high schools).

The program offers scholarships to students for either education or housing in exchange for their signature on a contract stating they will serve in the US military upon graduation for up to a decade. If, after graduating, they refuse to enlist, they will have to pay back any scholarship money they received. In this way, the Army gets VIP access to the psyches of young college students on every campus where it sets up shop.

The ROTC program was established in 1916 as part of the National Defense Act and grew steadily until the late 1960s, when students began targeting its on-campus offices to protest the Vietnam War. At CUNY schools, acts of civil disobedience – in 1969, students pulled a “Carrie” on the ROTC by dumping buckets of ox blood on their registration table – spurred faculty to kick ROTC off-campus. The school president, in contrast, referred to the protesters as “complete dropouts from the human species.”

Now, after more than 40 years, ROTC is back at CUNY as part of a broader shift to focus recruiting efforts on the North. In 2013, The New York Times reported that the ROTC would be shuttering its operations at 13 schools in the South to focus on colleges in Northeast cities, including the Ivy League.

In the spring of 2013, Colin Powell, himself a graduate of Army ROTC, visited City College at the official signing ceremony of the reopened CUNY ROTC chapters, which attempted to encamp in four colleges: York, City, Staten Island, and Medgar Evers.

It was thanks to organizing efforts on the part of students and faculty that the ROTC was eventually forced off the campuses of Medgar Evers and Staten Island. Both colleges held town hall debates on the issue and subsequently voted against maintaining a ROTC presence on campus. In both cases, ROTC lasted for less than a year.

ROTC Heads East

But why is ROTC so interested in New York City schools in the first place?

In 2010, then-defense secretary and one-time president of Texas A&M, Robert Gates, delivered a speech to students at Duke University that helps explain the northern pivot. Ostensibly a rallying cry for students to join the armed forces, the speech also served as a vehicle for Gates to lay out a new course for the Army ROTC. Gates called on the Army to push its recruiting efforts East under the liberal pretense of diversifying the corps.

“The idea that to diversify the management of state violence is the goal of ROTC, is something that we’ve been critiquing from the start.”

“There is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally, and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend,” Gates said. Here, “diversifying the corps” means the Army Reserve has unfettered access to a new market of potential young recruits. The speech sent a powerful message that the idea of recruiting in the Northeast of the country was now suddenly acceptable again after nearly half a decade, and for perfectly progressive reasons.

A 2011 report from the conservative Washington think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), parroted Gate’s thinking in less uncertain terms. The report, “Underserved: A Case Study of ROTC in New York City,” was essentially a plan for reinstating ROTC at CUNY.

“The absence of ROTC units on urban campuses, especially in the Northeast, prevents the military from taking full advantage of their large, ethnically diverse populations,” wrote the former manager of AEI’s Program on American Citizenship, Cheryl Miller. “By overlooking institutions like CUNY – among the top producers of African-American baccalaureate – the military is not accessing minority officers fully reflective of the population.”

“The freshman class should be your primary focus because they will have the highest dropout rate. They often lack both the direction and funds to fully pursue their education.”

Some, of course, are skeptical that the conservative embrace of diversity has anything to do with progressive values. “The idea that to diversify the management of state violence is the goal of ROTC, is something that we’ve been critiquing from the start,” Conor Tomás Reed, an adjunct professor in the English department at Medgar Evers, told me. He helped lead the anti-recruitment effort on his campus and was handing out fliers the day I visited York. Reed explained that one reason the ROTC is interested in New York City universities in particular is that the junior ROTC presence (in high schools) there is not having the intended recruiting results. Though junior ROTC has high enrollment, a lot of those students don’t go on to enlist. But college students are old enough to sign a contract that locks them into a career in the military.

The Army has never been shy about sharing its recruiting agenda. Indeed, its 2011 School Recruiting Program starts off by explaining that “the postsecondary market” (that would be “college”) is a great place to recruit due to the high level of students who drop out during their first two years. The report instructs recruiters to, “Routinely reassure college officials the Army is interested only in recruiting former students who have dropped out and students who are about to graduate. Avoid giving the impression that the Army is on campus to cause students to drop out of college.”

That said, “The freshman class should be your primary focus because they will have the highest dropout rate. They often lack both the direction and funds to fully pursue their education.” Good thing the Army is there to point them toward the combat zones.

Seth Kershner, a researcher who is writing a book about counter-recruitment, has an additional explanation for the timing of this recruiting push East. “You saw this eastward expansion into places like CUNY and the Ivy league schools after ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was abolished,” he told me. Many school administrators “were never opposed on ideological grounds, but because they didn’t want the military to be discriminating.”

Legislation to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the law that banned gays from openly serving in the military, was passed in 2010, only a few months before Gates called on the Army to head north. Since then, the ROTC has returned to schools that had been hostile to it since the late ’60s, including Harvard and Yale.

Some Ivy League schools partner with neighboring, less prestigious colleges to train their students as well. For example, Princeton’s ROTC corps includes 80 students, but only 24 of them are actually enrolled in Princeton; the rest are from Rutgers-Camden, Rowan University and Rider University, among others.

Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, spoke concretely in 2010 about his hope that the repeal of military’s ban on openly gay soldiers would cause students to be more open to a career in the armed forces. Indeed, he said the repeal, “effectively ends what has been a vexing problem for higher education, including at Columbia, given our desire to be open to our military, but not wanting to violate our own core principle against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”

“To some people, a post-racial multicultural advancement can be accomplished by more POC officers, cops, government officials, CEOs, while the systems of racialized inequality and violence are untouched.”

The CUNY system is ethnically and racially diverse, which makes it a good target for the ROTC’s faux-progressive recruitment efforts: African-American and Latino students make up more than half the student body. According to CUNY’s Fall 2013 enrollment numbers, 86 percent of students at Medgar Evers are black, while 2 percent of them are white. York College has many more Asian and Latino students than Medgar Evers, though it’s still only 8 percent white.

On top of that, these schools receive less funding compared to other CUNY schools, making them, as Reed suggests, more vulnerable to recruiters offering financial support to students.

“If you look at all of the different schools, York is a four-year school, Medgar Evers is a four-year school, and yet they are severely underfunded compared to the other CUNY schools,” Reed told me. “It’s no accident that they have the highest number of non-European-American students.”

Of course, targeting poor, nonwhite teenagers for military service is nothing new. Over the past decade, recruiting efforts in southern Texas have boosted the number of Latinos serving in the military, though according to a 2010 study, they remain underrepresented in the Army officer corps (and “overrepresented among those enlisted soldiers who are most often in harm’s way”). While the overall number of Latinos in the Army is on the rise, however, the number of black people in the military has remained relatively constant.

The problem, as Reed articulated to me over email, is that, “to some people, a post-racial multicultural advancement can be accomplished by more POC officers, cops, government officials, CEOs, while the systems of racialized inequality and violence are untouched.”

From Campus to Combat, Manufacturing Inequality

Unsurprisingly, the battered economy has lead to a recent rise in Army recruits with college degrees (though these still make up a relatively small proportion of those who enlist). Beth Asch, a senior economist at the RAND Corporation, told NPR in 2012 that, “Since the mid-2000s, the unemployment rate has essentially doubled,” leading to a more than a 50 percent rise in Army and Navy recruits with college degrees. This helps explain why ROTC has returned to the more affluent Ivy League schools, where many students still struggle to make ends meet.

Still, ROTC presence is much more prominent at non-Ivies. According to Reed, the Army ROTC goes after students who have no other way to pay for college. “The US military,” said Reed, “in a savvy and callous way, [is] trying to . . . in a sense, turn all the issues of discrimination in jobs and public services and scholarships, to actually flip it on its head in a way that is, unfortunately, doing as much of a predatory outreach to students of color as, say, Sallie Mae had done with their student loans.”

Reed said students he spoke to who wanted ROTC on the Medgar Evers campus wanted it there not because they were pro-military, but simply because it was how they planned to pay for college.

This makes sense when you consider that black and brown college students graduate with bleaker job prospects and more debt than their white peers.

A 2013 Economic Policy Institute report, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics going back to 1989, concluded that “the unemployment rate of young college graduates who are racial and ethnic minorities clearly tends to be higher than that of young white college graduates, in good times and bad.”

The 2012 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study found that the average student debt for a graduate from the class of 2012 was $27,808 if you’re black, $19,613 if you’re white.

Meanwhile, the average parent income of a white Class of 2012 graduate was $106,678; the average parent income for a black graduate was $61,803. Gates’ advice to the students at Duke to “Think about what you can do to earn your freedom,” takes on a different meaning in this context.

Ongoing Student Resistance

At Medgar Evers, a great deal of organizing needed to be done to resist the ROTC, which landed on campus in 2013 with the support of a select few faculty members who brought them in. According to Reed, banners were hung around the college publicizing ROTC’s presence, and a huge space was given to them to teach their training course.

The militarization of CUNY is not limited to the return of the ROTC, which has strengthened cooperation between university administration and the Defense Department; it has inculcated a security complex on campus that violently squelches student dissent.

Borrowing from the model tested by Staten Island, which had recently refused ROTC access to their campus, Reed, student activists, professors from the math department and others held a town hall meeting ahead of the college council vote (ROTC had already been on the campus for several months before the council was to vote them in as a formality). As a result of student and faculty organizing, ROTC received only 21 of the 37 votes it needed to continue operating at CUNY. That vote took place in February 2014. By the end of the semester, ROTC left Medgar Evers.

The CUNY Professional Staff Congress, the union that represents CUNY’s more than 25,000 faculty and staff, also passed a resolution this year in opposition to the institutionalization of the ROTC at CUNY. Hopefully in the future this support from the union will give those who work at CUNY the confidence to take action against the ROTC on their campuses.

The militarization of CUNY is not limited to the return of the ROTC, which has strengthened cooperation between university administration and the Defense Department; it has inculcated a security complex on campus that violently squelches student dissent.

On October 20, I spoke with City College senior Alyssia Osorio who, for the duration of the interview sat crouched in a stairwell, hiding out from her school’s security officers.

On that day, students were protesting the one-year anniversary of the closing of the Guillermo Morales/Assata Shakur Center, and, according to Osorio, security wasn’t allowing students to leave campus buildings, for fear they’d participate in nonviolent civil disobedience.

“I would say there are 100 extra public safety officers on this campus right now. They have six or seven per floor, I hear walkie-talkies throughout the floors,” said Osorio, who helped organize the protest. “We’re being policed and militarized in a real way.”

The center once housed 23 student-run organizations and clubs and a soup kitchen that fed 500 people every month. Last year, the administration began dismantling the center without any warning to the students. “They didn’t announce any closure,” Osorio told me. “Everything was taken away.” The building has since been converted into the Office of Career and Professional Development.

Several more changes accompanied the reinstitution of the ROTC at City College in 2013. That same year the college renamed its social sciences department “The Colin L. Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership.” In November 2013, Powell pledged $5 million in funding to City College.

Osorio also noted the increased militarization of campus police, particularly the practice of ticketing City College students. Osorio said students have been given tickets for bringing food into a library. She said a student was zip-tied by college security personnel for drinking a 40 (-ounce bottle of beer) outside on campus.

The protests in response to the closing of the Center have garnered relatively little media attention compared to those that took place at City College in the spring of 2013. Then, protestors denounced the appointment that April of David Petraeus as an adjunct professor at Macauley Honors College. Adjuncts at Macauley typically make $3,000 per course, but the one-time CIA director and leader of the armed forces during the 2007 “surge” in Iraq, was given a starting salary of $200,000 per year. To this day, Petraeus still holds this lucrative position.

The truth is, though young people may sign up with hopes of being an astronaut, the ROTC is a raw deal. Like college debt, it’s something most agree to when they are very young, not fully considering its implications for the next decade of their life; those who dodge their contractual obligations face jail time and there is, of course, no guarantee that recruits won’t be sent off to fight and die in a war.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate of Army veterans, at 8 percent, is significantly higher than it is for the rest of the population, belying the claim that enlisting in the military is a solid career move. Veterans given less than fully honorable discharges – more than 100,000 over the last decade – also lose the money they would have been awarded to pay for college. In many ways, ROTC seems a bad deal, alternatives to which colleges should be promoting.

At City, Osorio told me, “This oncoming militarization and the ROTC is really normalizing police presence everywhere you go.” Increasingly, this is the kind of higher education this country will be getting so long as those who manage our colleges are also in the business of managing state violence.

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