The Medgar Evers College Council voted decisively on February 24 against authorizing a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at its campus. The vote marks the first time in 25 years that a faculty governance body at CUNY has rejected an ROTC program. The final tally was 30 opposed, 21 in favor and four abstentions.
“I think the vote went the way it did because people voted their consciences,” said Philip Ording, an assistant professor of mathematics and a member of the College Council.
“It’s a tremendous step in CUNY schools taking a stand against militarism and for standing up for democratic governance processes,” added Conor Tomás Reed, a graduate assistant in the English department at Medgar Evers College (MEC), who with Ording and others was active in organizing faculty opposition to ROTC.
Lack of Support
CUNY currently has Army ROTC programs at City College, York and Medgar Evers, all launched in 2013. Unlike the programs at CCNY and York, however, the fledgling ROTC program at MEC had never received approval from the school’s governance body. In the vote at MEC this February 24, the ROTC curriculum proposal needed support from a majority of College Council members, or 37 votes, in order to pass. The 21 votes in favor fell far short of that mark.
On March 19, MEC President Rudy Crew announced that the college’s ROTC program would close at the end of the current semester. “The College Council vote is binding,” said Crew.
The return of on-campus ROTC programs to CUNY in 2013, years after most were ended during protests over the Vietnam War, had strong backing from CUNY central administration. It followed release of an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) report that decried the lack of ROTC programs in “urban markets,” and laid out a blueprint for bringing ROTC back to CUNY and other universities in New York City (see Clarion, December 2013).
The AEI report targeted CUNY for special attention on the grounds that City University is “among the top producers of African-American baccalaureates.”
The vote by the Medgar Evers College Council marked the second consecutive setback for ROTC at CUNY this year. A plan to bring ROTC to the College of Staten Island (CSI), which CUNY central administration had announced as a fait accompli last Spring, has stalled as no department on that campus has volunteered to host an ROTC program, according to John Lawrence, chair of CSI’s psychology department.
The vote at Medgar Evers followed a lengthy discussion during the College Council meeting. Opponents of ROTC criticized the military’s role in US wars and armed interventions abroad, and the high levels of PTSD, suicide and sexual attack experienced by service members. ROTC supporters responded that responsibility for US foreign policy lies with its elected officials and emphasized instead the career opportunities they said the program would offer MEC’s student body, predominantly people of color.
“The military is far more diverse than the faculty and the administration at most colleges and universities,” noted Wallace Ford, assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration.
Chinyere Egbe, chair of the Department of Economics and Finance, said ROTC opponents were engaged in a “misguided” protest against US policy. “War did not begin with the US. And it did not end with the US,” Egbe said. “Let us give our students the opportunity to participate in the process of this country.”
The points made at the MEC College Council meeting echoed a discussion at a “town hall” meeting organized on campus the week before. A panel of three speakers in favor of the ROTC and three opposed each made an opening statement, and then took questions from an audience of about 100 people. The event was model-ed on a similar town hall meeting held at CSI last fall (see Clarion, December 2013). Supporters included a colonel who directs the ROTC programs at CUNY and a student currently taking part in the ROTC program at MEC; opponents included two veterans of the Iraq War, one of whom is a student at Queens College. Discussion topics included whether the Army would allow a “military science” course to be taught by an anti-militarist scholar, and if not, what that would mean for academic freedom.
“It was an incredibly useful, democratic debate,” said Ording, who said he was inspired to begin organizing against ROTC on his campus after reading coverage in Clarion about the town hall at CSI last fall.
Although Medgar Evers College President Rudy Crew has expressed support for ROTC, during the February 24 College Council meeting he stepped aside from the podium to let faculty members share their thoughts. Crew took office last summer and has won the respect of faculty for displaying a more collegial leadership style than his predecessors.
“That was the first time in 20 years that the president of the college didn’t try to bully faculty members in that kind of situation,” said Nancy Oley, the College Council secretary. “I think it’s a good sign that we’re in a new governance environment.”
The small ROTC program currently operating at MEC, hosted by the college’s department of public administration, has offered 100- and 200-level courses in leadership open to all Medgar Evers students. None of the participants had yet been granted ROTC scholarships nor enrolled in the upper-level courses required for a degree in military science.
Trust And Concern
Ford told Clarion his department was prepared to abide by the College Council’s decision – “a vote is a vote,” he said – but would wait for direction from the college administration before making any changes.
President Crew’s March 19 statement outlined how the college administration would implement the College Council’s decision: “As a result of the College Council vote, and in consideration of those students currently participating, the ROTC program will continue at Medgar Evers until the end of this semester.” After MEC’s ROTC program is closed, Crew said, “students will be able to take ROTC courses as e-permit at City College and York College,” where on-campus ROTC programs continue.