Operationalizing ROTC’s Return

Will this symbol appear on campus? (Image: University Of Nebraska - Kearney)
Forget, for a moment, the ongoing debate over the return of ROTC and the arguments about whether we should continue to ban it on anti-militarist grounds or on the grounds of discriminating against transgender students. Forget the calls to bring ROTC to Stanford in order to connect future leaders with our nation’s military or to bring Stanford’s leaders into the ranks of that military. Instead, let’s consider how – or even whether – ROTC might return to campus if it were allowed to return.

The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps is quite costly for the military. In addition to providing a $180,000 scholarship per cadet, each service branch must hire instructors and fund training for cadets at each school. To be viable, an ROTC program must have enough participants to justify these high fixed costs.

Even if the campus ROTC ban is lifted, there still needs to be enough student interest to make it worthwhile for the military to invest in a Stanford program. Stanford students are busy people – in spite of the sunshine and green lawns, there’s a lot less lounging time here than at some other universities. That means that the opportunity cost of ROTC is higher here than elsewhere, which would discourage participation. And that’s not even considering the fact that ROTC is about committing to serve in an active military, where service often means being on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan. With all of these issues what hope is there for ROTC?

There are, in fact, a number of reasons why we might expect ROTC to attract a sizable population of cadets. First, there’s already a contingent of students who are willing to participate despite the off-campus commute. Second, offering ROTC might encourage some students to attend Stanford who otherwise would not, bringing in new cadets. What’s most interesting is a survey at Yale, completed in November, which shows that there’s an undercurrent of interest in ROTC, even at elite schools. The survey found overwhelming support for ROTC’s return to Yale (70 percent for to 16.5 percent against, with a sample size of 25 percent of the total undergraduate population), but more surprisingly, almost 7.5 percent of respondents (about 100 students) expressed interest in joining a Yale ROTC program. To be sure, Stanford is not Yale – just compare our high of 66 degrees last week with their chance of snow flurries – but it’s a sign that a ROTC program could take root even at an elite university like Stanford and it’s a rebuke to those who argue that it would wither and die here.

Rolling out ROTC here would take some time. Stanford has expressed interest in the MIT model of offering military instructors a trial period in which to prove their capabilities and then granting a temporary two-year post to those who are successful. In addition, as was pointed out in a recent letter to the Daily, UC Berkeley, a much larger school than Stanford (albeit also possibly more hostile to ROTC), has only 60 students in its Naval ROTC unit, including students from nearby universities (MIT had over 220 participants in its program in the mid-90s, although that number may have since fallen: with 15 graduating naval cadets in 2008, the projected total size of the program would be closer to 150). Some people may be lost when translating survey fervor into action. Beyond the human resources, ROTC would require space for its offices and drills. This concern seems minor to me. No matter how we measure it, Stanford has one of the largest campuses in the world – including a wide variety of fields for drill space – and given the seemingly feverish pace of construction, we could easily add new office space. If we can overcome the human constraints, there is great potential for a successful ROTC program here on the Farm, if, and when, we embrace it.

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