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Fight the Good Fight

Andrew C. Thomas

Of all the legacies that outgoing President Vest has left the MIT Campus, the fight toward gay equality seems to be the one that lags the rest of the pack. Now, there’s an opportunity for a jump start.

A new offensive against the policies of the Department of Defense is in flight across the country, since the Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, a group representing law school professors, filed a lawsuit. The current movement focuses on two government documents: the Solomon Amendment, which gives the DOD the right to revoke their funding to institutions who forbid military recruiters; and “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy that prevents openly gay people from serving in the military, but protects those who do not wish to reveal their sexual orientation. The conflict is manifest at any university which has a policy against any discrimination based on sexual orientation -- which of course includes MIT.

Now, MIT has a vested interest in alleviating this cause -- their treatment of the situation is nothing less than a black eye on the faces of those who “don’t ask, don’t tell” affects. The very nature of the policy, actively and continually violating the MIT nondiscrimination statement, challenges MIT to come up with, at the very least, an acceptable compromise. For years, the MIT Bulletin has contained a promise that MIT will do all it can to change DOD policy to align with this Institute’s outlook, a sentiment shared by the original ROTC Task Force. Now, I don’t know whether the goal is one that university pressure alone can achieve, but it doesn’t bode well for the effort when MIT drops its level of effort -- such as when it removed from the Bulletin the promise to seek a change in DOD policy.

Why has so little action been taken? The issue “just hasn’t been, frankly, right in front of our faces,” said Human Resources VP Laura Avakian this past summer. This might excuse past negligence of the issue, if you want to be generous; if anything, it suggests that the issue should be reignited.

In truth, MIT hasn’t been negligent on the issue at all; however, I find that the administration is overly conservative in which battles it chooses to fight. MIT’s point man on this issue is Chancellor Phillip Clay, in his official capacity as chairman of the ROTC Implementation Committee. Clay said to me by e-mail that MIT’s actions on the issue, when they occur, are directly targeted toward changing DOD policy in terms of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” rather than more peripheral cases, such as those that involve the presence of military recruiters, bound by DOD policy to violate the conditions of nondiscrimination policies at MIT’s sister institutions.

Last week Harvard announced the beginning of a new set of negotiations with the DOD to challenge the validity of the Solomon Amendment as it applies to recruiters. The Pentagon holds all the cards at this table; Harvard has chosen, in the short term, to back down and exempt military recruiters from their policies, much like other schools in the debate. And many who observe the issue at Harvard don’t believe the negotiations will get anywhere -- after all, it’s been tried before, not only by Harvard but by other coalitions.

But why not join the fight? MIT has nothing to lose by joining Harvard in their discussions with Pentagon officials and everything to gain. Fears that the Institute would lose further funding by taking aggressive action are unfounded. We’ve already bent far enough backwards for the DOD, and both sides know MIT has too much to lose by using the threat of banishment as an ace up our sleeve. The focus of the negotiation, much like the class-action suit, is on the grounds of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression. Surely, any moves that could potentially tip the balance of power in the favor of MIT’s peer universities would benefit MIT indirectly or directly, perhaps aiding in later moves to overturn “don’t ask, don’t tell,” whether by MIT or the general public.

Now I remain pessimistic that these negotiations will have any earth-shaking effect against the Pentagon -- after all, they didn’t work before. But surely they will help to unify the institutions of higher learning in this country in a common cause, and pave the way to other action in the future when more opportunities come along. And isn’t brotherhood and the right to personal happiness the underlying issue?