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Revisiting Gays in ROTC

Once again, we see that the best way to solve a problem at MIT is to bury it in a committee and wait a few years. The latest such situation is MIT's conflict with the military on the admission of gays into Reserve Officer Training Corps programs. Thirteen years ago, MIT faculty made a rather strong declaration that this situation would be resolved. Either the program would have to be changed in order to fully incorporate gay cadets, or it would be suspended. The plan originally called for the end of freshman enrollment in ROTC for the class entering in 1998 if change had not been made for 1995. In particular, the resolution called for MIT and other schools to “work for reversal of the [Department of Defense] policy,” according to the faculty declaration.

MIT President Charles M. Vest assembled a committee in late 1995 to determine whether change had occurred; their final report, dated March 20, 1996, determined that adequate progress had not been made toward a change of DOD policy toward non-discrimination. By the original terms of the faculty declaration, ROTC should have been kicked off campus -- something that was likely never to happen. If MIT were to suspend the program, it would jeopardize funding from the DOD, a major source of funding.

So what could be done? In the past, a gay ROTC student was discovered, the student’s scholarship was revoked, and a court ordered him to pay back the money already received. Following the federal policy change, no reimbursement was required for any dismissed student nationwide. Bravely, MIT decided to pick up the tab on the scholarship for other students faced with this dilemma, but this policy has gone sorely underadvertised at MIT. No one has yet had to take advantage of the reinsurance policy, but knowing about it would at least encourage gay students to apply for scholarships without great financial risk.

Other avenues have been explored. The committee made a recommendation for an alternative ROTC program that would allow openly gay cadets. The only difference? They would be ineligible for a commission in the armed forces, the ultimate payoff -- and purpose -- of the program for scholarship students. This is certainly a step in the right direction. So what happened?

The alternative ROTC policy was never adopted. There is still no possibility of an openly gay cadet serving at MIT, despite the work of the 1996 commission. Little exploration has happened since then, despite the claim in the MIT Bulletin that the discrepancy is currently under review. Reinsurance is an excellent step and must be actively promoted in the Bulletin, as recommended by the faculty in 1996, and elsewhere.

MIT has two further obligations to fulfill. It must promote its recommended program or another alternative, and it must open a sustained dialogue with other academic institutions to change DOD policy. The timing might be right: President Bush recently appointed an openly gay man to his administration, and the role of women in the military, another hot button in the past, is increasing. From the beginning, President Vest has shown great courage in his drive to promote equal opportunity so far. Let us hope he has the constitution to take the fight to the finish.