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Gays And ROTC

Michael J. Piore

The article by Keith Winstein on the changes in the Institute’s ROTC policy [“ROTC Discrimination Statement to Change,” June 18], and the comments of the faculty and administration which he quoted, do not accurately reflect the policy which was adopted by the faculty, as I (as a gay member of the MIT community) understood it. For me, the efforts to change the policy in Washington were not the most important element. Far more important was the effort to make sure that ROTC did not generate and maintain an ethos which is antagonistic to MIT's open and tolerant academic culture, and, in fact, that as much as possible the broader culture of MIT permeated ROTC.

Latent (and not so latent) homophobia within ROTC and its potential for infecting the rest of the institute was of paramount concern given the policy toward gays in the military, but this was part of a broader concern about the possible clash between military and academic values. The broad policy was captured by the term “tight embrace.” The idea was to draw ROTC closer to MIT, not to distance MIT from it.

The policy of tight embrace was a practical accommodation to the Congressional threat to cut off all military funding to universities which severed connections to ROTC. Given the magnitude of military research at MIT, and its importance in a number of research and teaching programs the threat went to the very foundations of the institution. But tight embrace was, for these very reasons, not simply an accommodation to an unpleasant reality. Precisely because of the importance of military research on campus, the Institute has always faced the problem of the clash between the military ethos and the academic culture. It has over the years evolved a series of institutions for managing and resolving that conflict in a way which has insured the scholarly integrity of its programs. It is for that reason that ROTC was still present on campus when the issue of gays in the military arose. In the Viet Nam era, when other universities were quick to eliminate their ROTC programs, the MIT faculty reviewed the ROTC oversight process and found it successful in maintaining a program that was consistent with the Institutes basic mission. That same faculty, in the same period, reviewed the Institute’s relationship with the Draper Laboratory and recommended severing that connection -- basically because it was felt that academic values had not been, and could not be, preserved there. (The Corporation, at considerable financial sacrifice, then sustained the faculty vote and carried out its recommendation). Tight embrace is an extension of this tradition.

From this point of view, there are four key elements to tight embrace. First, every military candidate for a position at ROTC is interviewed by the faculty committee; in the interview the basic policy is explained and the candidate is required as a condition of appointment to agree to accept the letter and the spirit of the policy, by not tolerating homophobic speech or behavior in the activities which he or she supervise. Second, ROTC classes are to be open to all members of the MIT community whether or not they can actually participate in the program itself. Third, ROTC will try to develop joint classes with other parts of the Institute on subjects in which they share a common interest. The last component is the reinsurance through which MIT provides financial support to any ROTC student who loses his scholarship because of the military policy of expelling open homosexuals.

When I was a member of the faculty ROTC committee every candidate was, in fact, asked what was then called “the question” and agreed to the Institute’s policy. I do not know whether this is currently the case, but it certainly should be. ROTC has worked to develop joint classes with other parts of the Institute. The comments of one of the officers in the article suggest, however, that ROTC’s own classes are not open to all students. And the reported fact that the reinsurance program is not widely publicized and ROTC students are not all advised of its existence is certainly not consistent with the spirit of tight embrace policy. Clearly there are problems with the policy as currently administered which need to be corrected.

In a week in which the rights of homosexuals to marry has just been recognized in Canada, it is hard to say what is politically realistic. But I at least did not ever think that pressure from MIT would change military policy on the issue of homosexuality. I did think that if effectively implemented, the policy of tight embrace would protect the Institute and the gay members of the community against the broader impact of that policy on campus, and I continue to do so.

Michael J. Piore is the David W. Skinner Professor of Political Economy.