An administration plan to establish a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at the College of Staten Island (CSI) has sparked controversy since it was announced last semester. Earlier this fall, the college hosted a town hall meeting, at which a six-member panel expressed clashing views on the ROTC. Since then, critics have been organizing against the military training program.
There were no ROTC programs on CUNY campuses for more than four decades, but the CUNY administration has started bringing them back. The process begun shortly after the right-wing American Enterprise Institute issued a report calling for ROTC’s return to CUNY.
York College established an Army ROTC program in the 2012-13 academic year and City College of New York and Medgar Evers College are launching their own programs this fall. Last April, CUNY Central administration stated that “the College of Staten Island plans to offer the program in the future.” But objections from CSI department chairs led to the September 24 town hall meeting.
The public meeting began with introductory remarks from CSI’s Interim Provost, Fred Naider, followed by five-minute presentations from panel members. Two of the panelists opposed to ROTC were recent veterans of the Iraq War, who said that military recruiters often deceive young people about the dangers they will face if they enlist.
Former Staff Sergeant Javier Ocasio, a 15-year Army veteran, told the audience that the military paints a misleading image of the risks of war, omitting the experiences of those “who followed their orders, who died, committed war crimes or other acts of unspeakable terror and now suffer from PTSD.”
Jennifer Pacanowski enlisted as a medic in the Army in the spring of 2003 shortly before President George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier to announce an end to major combat operations in Iraq under a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished.” She did not expect to go to war. By 2004, she found herself working as a combat medic with military convoys that were regularly attacked by a rapidly growing insurgency.
‘I Was a Number’
“I was a number and I was property, as you would be,” said Pacanowski, who served in Iraq for a year.
Panelist Colonel Scott Heintzelman said the Army wants to establish more ROTC programs in the Northeast in order to diversify its officer corps, which is heavily white and hails mainly from the South and the West. He argued that the ROTC program can benefit students in important ways.
“As an Army officer,” Heintzelman said, “you get upward career mobility, you get competitive skills for the future, and you’re really equipped to succeed in life.” ROTC students can receive scholarships, a monthly stipend and a book allowance. They must take one “military science” course per semester, plus participate in additional summer trainings. They graduate as second lieutenants in the US Army and are required to serve at least three years in active duty and five years in the Inactive Ready Reserve (IRR).
Siobhan Murphy, a freshman pre-nursing major at CSI who plans to enlist in the Navy, agreed with Heintzelman in the discussion period. Murphy spent four years in Junior ROTC in high school and said the experience gave her confidence and structure in her life that she did not have before. “The leadership traits I learned, I can take them anywhere,” Murphy said.
Heintzelman’s fellow panelist Donna Chirico, a professor of psychology and acting dean at York College’s School of Arts and Sciences, said the proposal to bring ROTC to her college sparked a heated debate among faculty. However, the program was eventually approved by the College Curriculum Committee and the Faculty Senate. She said she initially had been skeptical about the “leadership training” that is central to the ROTC program, but eventually changed her mind. “Now that we’ve seen the first year of students go through the program [at York], I have to say that I’m very impressed,” Chirico said.
Chirico said that York’s College Senate had a heated debate over the proposed ROTC program, but that in the end, the senate approved it by a wide margin.
CSI faculty members at the Sept. 24 town hall were overwhelmingly opposed to having a ROTC program on campus, citing a number of reasons for their opposition.
“There is a tension between what we do here, which is educate,” said Ruth Powers Silverberg, and the training to follow orders that the military requires. “Education is broad preparation for thinking about how to participate in a democracy,” Powers Silverberg, an associate professor of education, told Clarion. “Military training is fundamentally different.”
“Keep militarism and education apart because they have different goals,” agreed Harry Cason, a retired adjunct who taught at CSI for 26 years.
John Lawrence, chair of the psychology department at CSI, interned for a year as a clinical psychologist at a VA hospital in Miami in 1994. He says he saw that the military often does not treat its veterans well.
“The US military has committed war crime after war crime,” Lawrence told the town hall meeting, citing US invasions of Vietnam, Panama and Iraq. “When CSI invites the US military to be on our campus, we are basically endorsing what the US military does.”
Ellen Goldner, an associate professor of English and coordinator of CSI’s Bertha Harris Women’s Center, noted that female service members in the Army suffer from high rates of sexual assault. Goldner questioned whether CSI should encourage female students to join an institution with this kind of problem.
Heintzelman replied that the Army ROTC provides sexual assault training for new cadets and is committed to addressing the problem. But Pacanowski panned the Army’s sexual assault training programs as “a PowerPoint joke,” and said that a culture of “victim blaming” held sway in the military. During her time in Iraq, she said, female soldiers felt constantly at risk of being raped. Some slept with knives at hand, “because they were more afraid of the people they were there with than the actual insurgents.”
Faculty voiced concern about the impact an ROTC program would have on classroom space, which is scarce at CSI. John Verzani, the math department’s chair, said he currently does not have enough classrooms for all the sections offered by his department. “I don’t know how adding significantly more classes helps with that,” he said.
Since the town hall meeting, ROTC critics have organized a film screening, gathered in a “Circle of Peace,” and laid plans to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the college’s now defunct program in War and Peace Studies.
Whether ROTC will come to CSI remains unclear. “All curriculum is supposed to be in the purview of the faculty,” notes Lawrence. Other faculty leaders agreed that any proposal to establish a “military science” program at the college would have to come before the Faculty Senate. But “the administration has been kind of vague about what the next steps would be,” Lawrence told Clarion. “The provost has said they will make a decision and inform us.”