An Absence of Service

Austin Byrd

9/11/2008 12:01:00 AM - Austin Byrd

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.

Interestingly enough, Columbia’s own Barack Obama has publicly supported the inclusion of ROTC programs on college campuses, going so far as to say that he would enforce the Solomon Amendment, a federal law allowing the Secretary of Defense to deny federal grants to schools that ban ROTC or prevent military recruitment, a stance that he shares with his former rival Hillary Clinton and current opponent John McCain. In a world in which even the political left has publicly voiced support for ROTC and the future of the American military, how long will so many of America’s institutions of higher learning continue to fail their students and the United States? At what point will the moral imperative of service apply not only to the programs of social justice and outreach that Bollinger has praised, but also to the very mode of service that has secured the free and open society in which these programs operate?

Admittedly, the machinations that would allow ROTC to return to a place like Columbia are myriad and complex, but that does not mean that Columbia cannot be immediately proactive in fostering a climate that is friendly towards the idea of military service. In recent years Columbia has courted the veteran population with the promise of G.I. Bill funding in mind and has had great success in drawing a number of them to its General Studies School, a move to be applauded. Why not apply similar initiatives to its other undergraduate schools, such as offering scholarships or tuition reduction to students enrolled in military training programs? Even small gestures, such as waiving the Physical Education requirement for students involved in training could have a positive cultural impact at Columbia. Columbia has sat idle for forty years, stubbornly leaving the defense of our country to others and those few Columbia students who have seen beyond the foolishness of the university, and it is well past time for a change.

For Columbia’s undergraduate students, much of their required education, known as the “Core,” revolves around the study of ideas and their power to transform the world including, interestingly enough, the idea of civic duty. Students are immersed in the work of great thinkers throughout history and asked to understand how and why they had an impact upon the world we live in today. Simply put, students are taught that ideas matter. The idea of military service matters in a truly vital sense because the act of service matters in a highly practical sense. The future of the United States depends upon more than just the men and women of the military, but this country cannot survive without the military and as such the military deserves the best and the brightest of our generation. Columbia, too, owes a debt of service, and it would do well to remember so.