On the 7th anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, students here at Columbia University will be asked to consider the notion of service to one’s nation. Both John McCain and Barack Obama will take the stage to discuss the idea of service at Columbia’s “ServiceNation Summit,” an event aimed at looking at the “future of national service” and ways to “expand the scope and scale of successful service programs throughout the nation,” according to Columbia President Lee Bollinger. As an American, a Marine Corps Officer Candidate, and a Columbia student, I applaud any event aimed at asking such questions, yet I cannot help but be dumbfounded by the hypocrisy of such an event being held on Columbia’s grounds, and under such auspices. Bollinger asks that the participants in this forum reflect upon their “obligations as citizens,” and yet Columbia University has shown a glaring lack of service for 40 years, following its ban of ROTC from its campus in 1968.
How can one discuss fulfilling service to one’s nation without considering what is one of the vital forms of fulfillment, that of military service? While Bollinger touts “service learning, volunteer action, and social entrepreneurship,” he fails to mention, or even allude, to the possibility that the military is a both viable and important option to be considered by Columbia students. Sadly, Columbia’s stance towards military service is neither surprising nor rare, as it exists throughout American academia, including at other top-tier schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, none of which sponsor ROTC programs on their campuses.
And while the issue of ROTC has certainly taken on a political bent in recent years, it is important to remember that, at its heart, lies a decidedly apolitical issue—that of service in the name of something larger than oneself, the very issue that Bollinger claims to revere yet fails to fully address. The stated reason for Columbia’s refusal to allow ROTC on its campus is the federal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy regarding homosexuals in the military, which the university regards as discriminatory. Leaving aside the fact that this policy is an issue of the federal government and not the military, one must ask what is ultimately more important: the rights of a minority or the ideal of service to one’s nation? In what moral calculus could one’s sexual orientation ever trump the monumental gift of citizenship in and open, free, and safe society? Unfortunately, at Columbia as in much of academia, it is precisely the opposite that is true.