Why Stanford Should Not Devote Resources to ROTC

by Danny Colligan

It is my opinion, as a student at Stanford University, that the ROTC program should not be permitted to use Stanford’s resources and land for operations and that allowing ROTC to do so would be a terrible error.

To begin, I must express my puzzlement that the ROTC issue has been brought up at this time. As far as I can see, no conditions at the University or otherwise have rendered the decision of the majority report of the Ad Hoc Committee of 1968-9 an anachronism. Indeed, I think the opinion is quite pertinent and correct: “The majority felt that the personal conduct standards of the three services ‘can seriously limit the student’s free participation in all facets of intellectual inquiry and legal political activity.’ It concluded that a formal, on-campus ROTC program was inconsistent with the definition of Stanford University as ‘a community whose members ... have a primary commitment to the creation and dissemination of knowledge, in an environment of free intellectual activity.’” Every word of this passage rings true today.

The only relevant recent development regarding the armed forces has been the predicted change in the status of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. In the event that DADT is eliminated, or even if it stays in place for an extended period of time, the policy of the armed forces towards open homosexuals is orthogonal to whether the ROTC program is “inconsistent with the definition of Stanford University,” so it seems strange the Stanford/ROTC issue is being reconsidered now.

Nevertheless, the ROTC issue seems to have come up again, for whatever reason, so perhaps it is worth reviewing the reasons why institutional support for the program would be unfortunate for the Stanford community, students and otherwise.


Trapping students into a program like ROTC violates some key components of undergraduate academic freedom. Specifically:

(1) Students should have the right to confidential counseling and advising

(2) Students should be free to choose any major they want, not to be forced to commit too early, and able to change majors as long as they can fulfill the requirements.

(3) Students should be free to choose their career path during their time as a student, and not to have this choice determined by those who fund their education.

(4) Outside organizations should not be granted the power to set up teaching facilities on campus in exchange for providing student scholarships.

To elaborate a bit on each of these points:

On (1), Senior Associate Director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Alejandro M. Martinez, Ph.D. has said the following:

“Students in ROTC have reported and expressed concern that being diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, may jeopardize their status in the program. In the past this has caused some students to not engage in treatment.

If the number of Stanford students in ROTC increases as a result of having the program on campus, it could potentially mean that a larger proportion of students may face this situation. The issue is whether Stanford wants to support a program on campus that has been reported to exclude individuals who are extraordinarily competent but may need treatment for a psychiatric condition."

Can it really be said that Stanford University allows and encourages full and confidential care for the mental health conditions of all students if, by participating in ROTC, students have a disincentive to seek treatment?

On (2), ROTC does not allow students participating in it free choice of their major. The rules for each branch differ, and the impediments vary. Some branches only allow students to participate in only a set of approved majors, some have different “tiers” of majors which rank attractiveness to the military, and some require approval of the major (or a change of major) by a military bureaucrat. Students are also potentially locked into their choice of major that they submit to ROTC for approval -- some even before they enter freshman year. All of these obstacles limit the academic freedom of undergraduates when compared to students that do not participate in ROTC.

On (3), ROTC programs require students to perform several years of active duty in the military after graduation. I am not aware of any other undergraduate program that mandates post-graduation career choices. The payback provisions of ROTC programs are also problematic, introducing severe financial penalties for withdrawal from ROTC. Again, these restrictions seem to distinguish ROTC from all other undergraduate programs.

On (4), allowing ROTC to set up teaching facilities on campus by providing money for student scholarships sets a dangerous precedent. Any organization could thereafter broker a deal with the University to have a building on campus with their teachers and their curriculum (with potentially little intellectual value). Such a precedent undermines academic control of the University.


The current Ad Hoc Committe on ROTC is right to worry about “(c) the potential conflicts resulting from educating an apolitical officer corps within an intellectually engaged student body.” However, the formulation is problematic; the troublesome word is “apolitical.” Once the armed forces’ operations are invited onto Stanford’s campus, the academy will feel additional pressure from the individuals involved in the program (and in the larger military establishment) to compromise further aspects of the University in order to accommodate military wishes. This may lead to a worrisome situation in which military objectives are privileged over the interests of the Stanford community. Indeed, there is precedent for this concern, as the same story unfolded with Stanford’s dependence on military funding:

“Because military support was crucial to Stanford, providing the funds that fostered the university’s collaboration with industry, [Frederick] Terman was not in a position to dictate the terms of the university-military relationship. Terman and Stanford’s engineers thus found themselves accommodating the military even when the interests of the military were clearly at odds with academic traditions or their own preferences. Rather than admit that there was a contradiction and that the engineers were not, in fact, the autonomous experts they claimed to be, the engineers settled for creating the illusion for others, and perhaps for themselves as well, that their collaboration with the military gave them autonomy and control over their work.” (Creating the Cold War University, Rebecca Lowen, p.137)

A more perplexing consideration that the committee puts forth is “(e) the nation is currently at war.” This does not seem to have any relevance to the ROTC discussion, as far as I can tell. It would be just as pertinent to mention “(e) spending on the military could instead be put towards beneficial social services” or “(e) the United States’ borders are not currently threatened and haven’t been since 1812.” And so on. If ROTC is necessary for support of a war effort (whose legitimacy/necessity/morality/legality may be questioned by some members of the community), that case would need to be made, not simply suggested.


It is worth noting that for those students that do want to join the military, there are plenty of options available to pursue that option today. First, ROTC cadets can commute to other schools for training, as they currently do now. Second, a student can sign up for Officer Candidate School (OCS) for any of the five branches of the armed forces after graduation from Stanford, earning an officer’s commission upon graduation. Third, an interested student could transfer to a military academy, such as Annapolis, and complete four years at that institution. Fourth, a student could enlist in the armed forces after graduation (or after dropping out). With all of these options available, why should the University additionally bend over backwards for the armed forces, sacrificing other interests of its students in the process?

Students, both current and potential, will notice if their interests take a back seat to those of the military. As undergraduate Tadeo Melean told me, “One of the reasons I chose Stanford University was precisely because it does not have an ROTC base on campus.” Stanford will surely be losing a number of potential applicants (and perhaps current students who transfer out) who value an education in an environment free of ROTC operations.


So that is the case against allowing ROTC on campus. What is the argument for it? One of the main proponents of the effort is history professor David Kennedy. He made four points in favor of Stanford having an ROTC base on campus during the Faculty Senate meeting on March 4th. I will address his arguments in turn.

Kennedy's first argument had to do with Stanford students who currently participate in ROTC programs, but travel to other schools for training. He said, "Our current practice... of compelling the one dozen ROTC students at Stanford to go to [other campuses] for their ROTC training [] imposes an unreasonable burden on them."

If the Army, Navy, or Air Force were actually concerned about students' convenience, there's an obvious solution to this problem: why don't the armed forces buy or rent land in Palo Alto on which the ROTC students could train? In fact, this arrangement would be much better than having a base on Stanford campus since they could implement it immediately, without waiting for the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" saga to unfold or the Stanford bureaucracy to kick into gear to approve their plans. Even if, hypothetically, this solution somehow proved impossible, one questions whether the convenience of "one dozen" students outweighs the chilling effect that further militarizing the campus would have on the rest of the student population.

Furthermore, the best way to formulate the University's position is by considering community members' rights. For instance, I could say as a student I have a right to an education and therefore the University's position should be so and so, or a staff member could say that he has a right to have the University fulfill the obligations of an employer, and so on. But there is no right to convenience. So the desire for convenience clearly does not hold the same kind of importance as other appeals to actual rights. For example, the right of students and faculty to have an environment conducive to learning and research, which bringing the military on campus would degrade. (I also note in passing the the inconvenience facing ROTC cadets is no more odious than that facing any other student with an outside job and a considerable commute, but there is no movement to mitigate their “unreasonable burden.”)

Lastly, I would note that even if ROTC is allowed on campus, the military might actually not build a base on campus because it might not be cost effective. The armed forces might still prefer the ROTC cadets to commute to regional centers where they already have a capital investment.

To summarize, "convenience" is not a right, there are easier options for the military, and even if ROTC is officially allowed on campus, the problem of long commutes for cadets may very well persist.

Kennedy's second argument was that "we are in danger of seriously compromising a 200-year-old tradition in this society of the citizen soldier, of interdigitating the military services and civil society in ways that ensure that the military arm does not become too separate either culturally or behaviorally from the civil society in our political system." So Kennedy is concerned with the split in values between the civilian and military sphere.

Unlike Professor Kennedy, however, I consider it a positive state of affairs that civilian and military life do not resemble each other. The military revolves around strict obedience of orders, hierarchical domination and massive violence. Civilian life, especially the scholarly life that we enjoy at Stanford, requires critical thinking, community involvement and independent thought. So I suppose I disagree with Professor Kennedy here: I believe the less militarized civilian life is, the better.

Kennedy's third argument was purely financial: "A bigger presence of ROTC will have implications for Stanford's financial aid budget, because over half of ROTC students receive scholarship funding from the Department of Defense." That is, the more ROTC students Stanford admits, the less Stanford needs to spend on those other students who suck money out of the budget with their financial aid needs.

This argument is troubling for two reasons. First, it subordinates academic and social concerns to financial ones. Stanford is supposed to be a university, not a business. Second, this argument could lead to a preference in accepting students who are in JROTC programs, thus increasing the role of the military at the university and moving away from the need-blind admissions paradigm.

Kennedy's final argument was, in his own words, "Our present policy makes it close to impossible for Stanford to contribute in any material way to training leaders for a very important institution in our society and one that's not going to go away -- the armed forces. For my own part, I can't see why that is a good idea."

Kennedy's last point really begs two larger questions. First, what role do we want Stanford to play in assisting military objectives? Second, what role do we want the armed forces to play in society?

As long as "leadership" is a euphemism for organized violence, the answer to the first question should be clear and unequivocal: Stanford is a university, and not a military base. Stanford should reject the ROTC's attempts to foist itself on campus since the ROTC and the armed forces it feeds into do not, to quote Stanford's founding grant, "[exercise] an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization."

On the second question, it is true that the armed forces aren't going away anytime soon. But there is no law of nature that dictates that the US armed forces must be constituted in the way or on the scale that they are presently. It is not inevitable that America invades helpless countries, topples their governments and kills their people. No commandment of God mandates that the United States must maintain hundreds of military bases around the globe and spend half of the earth's total military budget in order to intimidate and dominate the world. We can certainly envision a scaled-down military in the not too distant future that will have the Department of Defense actually deal with defense instead of aggression. And we can also imagine a national budget that will go towards solving pressing human needs -- universal health care, free education, ending hunger and homelessness and the like -- instead of funding military waste and, indeed, perhaps the extinction of the human race.


Professor William Perry also offered one argument at the March 4th Senate meeting. He stated, “I believe it’s clearly best for our democracy to have among its military officers citizens who have a liberal education at the best universities in the country, including Stanford.”

The idea that Stanford students are somehow better equipped to deal with military situations than non-Stanford students strikes me as an unfounded statement with an elitist tinge. I am not aware of any studies concluding that knowledge of, say, French literature makes one any more adept at handling weapons or planning an invasion. A Stanford affiliate making the point that Stanford students are the “best” choices for military officers seems less like an argument than a roundabout form of self-flattery.


That exhausts the arguments in favor of allowing ROTC on campus that I can identify in the March 4th minutes. But before I conclude the article, I want to advise the committee that it should do its utmost to identify potential conflicts of interest amongst individuals lending their voices to this debate. As the discussion over ROTC’s place (or lack thereof) at Stanford unfolds, some contributing their opinion may have financial or professional interests in the expansion and/or increased prestige of the military. The committee should affirm that the welfare of the undergraduates and the academic integrity of Stanford University are paramount concerns in this endeavor, subordinated to no other ideal. The Senate must be especially careful when platitudes about ambiguous concepts such as “the national interest,” “excellence,” or “patriotism” are invoked, since historically these terms have been nothing more than lofty rhetoric to obscure the reality of self-interested initiatives.

I hope the committee takes these concerns into account in its deliberations.

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