In Focus: ROTC marches on at NU despite inclusiveness controversy at other private institutions

Sammy Caiola

It’s 5:25 a.m. and Alexandra Gloria’s alarm clock is blaring in her otherwise silent apartment on Sherman Avenue. She springs from bed, already wearing her ROTC shorts, T-shirt and sweatpants, and ready for physical training.

Gloria, a senior psychology major at Northwestern, rises earlier than the sun twice a week to fulfill her obligations as a member of the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps. While some students are just going to sleep after a late night, Gloria and her fellow midshipmen are running down an empty Sheridan Road or doing calisthenics in the Sports Pavilion and Aquatics Center.

“Some days are better than others,” said Gloria, one of 12 NU students and 47 midshipmen total who train at NU. “I’ve gotten used to only having a few hours of sleep a night. I can get by.”

ROTC students split their time between training and coursework, and most receive full-tuition scholarships for four years of school. After graduation, they are required to serve four years in the U.S. Navy, said Lt. Steven Stashwick, a professor of Naval Science.

Although Gloria said she has benefitted from her participation in ROTC, students at other top universities have been debating the program for decades.

Michael Segal, the director of advocatesforrotc.org, said many students oppose the military’s exclusion of the transgender community and do not believe military life belongs in an academic environment.

“At some level, people need to realize that the military can change,” Segal said. “If there’s some form of discrimination that is unreasonable, the military can get around to changing that. Some people have a new hope for that following the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Gloria said no one has acted negatively toward her in uniform.

“I don’t know how I would handle it if someone asked me to leave or questioned me,” Gloria said. “I think it works fine, and I think it’s a smart idea. As a U.S. citizen you should want your military to be knowledgeable and to be able to think critically. ROTC is a good bridge between civilian, academics and military.”

ROTC and top-tier universities

The peaceful relationship between midshipmen and civilians at NU is not mirrored everywhere. Some peer schools unofficially banned ROTC during the Vietnam War, and the program has remained controversial due to DADT.

Since President Barack Obama signed a law to repeal DADT in December 2010, he has urged these universities to reinstate ROTC. Harvard University welcomed ROTC back to campus Mar. 4, but at Columbia University there have been mixed reactions.

Recently the Columbia University Senate passed a bill to explore the possibility of inviting ROTC back to campus. In response to discussion of reestablishing ties with ROTC, students formed the Coalition Against ROTC in early February. The group has held several forums with the university to voice its opinion. Another Columbia organization, Everyone Allied Against Homophobia, opposes ROTC’s return because the military excludes the transgender community.

Senior Avi Edelman, president of EAAH, said he has seen students hand out anti-ROTC flyers on campus and has met with the administration about the issue.

“Regardless of how we feel about ROTC or the military, our responsibility is first and foremost to protect the students who attend the university,” Edelman said. “Any group that discriminates can’t be here. As this policy stands, ROTC can’t return.”

The end of the protest era

Since ROTC began at NU in 1926, the program’s relationship with the University has been mostly peaceful. Though the organization has faced opposition, NU has never banned it.

In 1967 students formed a group called “Gentle Thursdays” which met weekly on Deering Meadow, where ROTC battalion drill took place, according to University archives. Approximately 300 students gathered in protest each week but did not interfere with the drill.

No protests have been documented since the ‘60s, and political science Prof. Jonathan Caverley said he is “struck by the lack of anti-militarism on this campus.” Caverley, who participated in ROTC as a Harvard student and trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1991 to 1994, said his unit received a lot more negative attention.

“Society has changed a great deal and is much more supportive of the military than they were when I was in college,” Caverley said. “At the end of the day, I’d say there’s generally less debate about this military, which is striking because we’re currently in the middle of two land wars.”

‘There has to be a way of ensuring that everyone can participate’

As the repeal of DADT proceeds, visible NU opposition to ROTC seems to have dissipated. Ethan Merel, vice president of membership of College Democrats, said the military has a right to be on a college campus as long as it acts in line with the non-discrimination policy at the University. NU’s Policy on Discrimination and Harassment states the University does not discriminate on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

“It’s been here for so long, and has not negatively impacted our community,” the Weinberg sophomore said. “I do not think that this new wave of ROTC protest at other campuses is going to affect our campus in any way. It has never been a problem.”

But Medill junior Chris Garcia, a resource assistant in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center, said he wishes Obama’s new legislation were more inclusive.

“It’s a very difficult problem, and it’s very frustrating that trans people aren’t in the policy,” he said. “I’m assuming that the military will grow in developing a training policy for trans individuals, but I think that will take time.”

NU alumnus Mykell Miller, a female-to-male transgender person, was involved with Rainbow Alliance and Peace Project before he graduated in 2010. He said both groups opposed ROTC but protesting the organization was never at the top of their agendas.

“As a transgender activist, I feel that if the ROTC receives funding from the University for its classes or credit, then there has to be a way of ensuring that everybody can participate,” Miller said.

While the government pays for ROTC scholarships, uniforms and equipment, the University does provide money for the Naval Science Department, said Stashwick.

Double duty

Weinberg sophomore Mark Merkley has dreamed of flying an airplane since childhood. Through ROTC, he has been able to work toward this goal while pursuing a degree in biology.

“Navy life is very testing,” Merkley said. “They put a lot on your plate and you have to balance (it).”

ROTC students must maintain a GPA of 2.5 to keep their scholarships. Midshipmen can apply for any major their university offers, but the Navy distributes scholarships on a three-tier system in which applied technical majors have priority over liberal arts majors, Stashwick said. ROTC offers tutoring in math and physics as well as appointments with lieutenants to discuss academics.

“We’re aware of that additional stress, and so we do work very hard to monitor all of our students’ academic progress,” Stashwick said. “It’s really important to us that they succeed academically.”

Of the students training on NU’s campus, 35 come from Loyola University, which doesn’t offer Naval ROTC. These students receive their degree from Loyola University but are commissioned in the Navy as ensigns of NU’s ROTC program, Stashwick said.

Battalion commander Chelsie Williams makes the 20-minute commute from Loyola every weekday for morning workouts and other ROTC commitments. The commute helps Loyola midshipmen become closer, the senior said.

“There’s very strong bonds,” Williams said. “You get very close to people very quickly, ‘cause you’re all going through this together.”

We
inberg junior Trey Herr entered NU’s ROTC program as a college programmer, a ROTC participant without a naval scholarship. NU ROTC requires every participant to apply for a scholarship by his or her junior year. When Herr realized he was not competitive enough to gain admittance into the Marine Corps program, his first choice, he chose not to apply. He said he enjoys the free time but misses the midshipmen.

“The getting up at 5 a.m. thing, I don’t miss that,” Herr said. “On the other hand, you’re out of that communal setting, and you don’t get that same type of camaraderie. ROTC is a package deal. You take the sour and the sweet. And to lose both, it has its ups and downs.”

Launching off from ROTC

When Gloria graduates in June she will go to Pensacola, Fla. to learn to fly planes. Gloria said she originally wanted to attend a Naval academy but is happy with her decision to participate in ROTC.

“I didn’t like the idea that I wouldn’t have the freedom to travel on the weekends,” she said. “It’s a lot more structured and it feels like you’re in the military already.”

Although she is excited about her future military career, she said she realizes there is progress to be made in military policy. Repealing DADT is a step in the right direction, she said.

“The Navy’s trying to work to change that culture, and I think they’re going the right way,” Gloria said. “Telling people this is the mindset we want to have. Try to get on board, or come to terms with it. You don’t have to approve of it. You just need to get along with people and keep it professional.”

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