By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — With Columbia University in the national spotlight after students heckled an Iraq war veteran, the school is set to host its third and final hearing Wednesday on whether to allow the Reserve Officers Training Corps — ROTC — on campus after a 42-year absence.
The Ivy League school is gripped by a debate on whether to allow ROTC, a training program that prepares students for military careers, to return to campus after ousting it more than four decades ago.
The university senate voted against bringing ROTC back to campus in 2005 in part because of the military's discriminatory "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Now that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been repealed, the school is revisiting the ROTC question.
The university came under attack from pundits and the public alike when students heckled a Columbia freshman and wounded Iraq war vet as he spoke in favor of ROTC at a public hearing last week. An audio recording of the incident is available here.
But approximately nine Columbia students are already enrolled in ROTC, even though they can't fulfill the program requirements on their own campus and instead have to commute to Fordham University, which hosts ROTC activities at its Bronx campus and Lincoln Center satellite.
Among them is 19-year-old sophomore Ryan Cho, a political science major from Los Angeles. He plans to attend medical school when he graduates, and says he values the leadership skills he's learning in ROTC.
With a grandfather and uncle who both served in the military, Cho said he's always been driven to serve his country.
Cho gets up at early every day and meets another ROTC cadet for a 6 a.m. subway ride to Fordham's Lincoln Center campus, where they perform an hour or two of physical training every morning. He also attends military history classes and tests his new skills at regular training exercises.
"It takes a toll waking up early, but then again it’s a decision we’ve made and we’ve committed to," Cho said. "All of us want to serve our country and when you’re in the military serving your country won’t be any easier."
Cho says he respects the opposition to ROTC on campus, but added that some of the arguments against ROTC — that the military preys on low-income communities and fosters an environmental of sexual violence against women — are "fear mongering."
ROTC cadet Jose Robledo, a 30-year-old political science and economics major, spent nine years in the Army. He was deployed to Afghanistan in 2003 and served 16 months in Iraq with the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. While there he participated in the 2006 surge that changed the course of the war in Iraq.
Robledo, a Columbia senator, says allowing ROTC on campus would help bridge the wide gap between those who serve in the military and those who don't.
"Having ROTC cadets in the classroom with other students who are going to leaders of industry and in politics and in social organizations adds another voice and another background," Robledo said. "Can you imagine what it would have been like to have (General Stanley) McChrystal and Obama in the same classroom?"
The senate is polling the university on the ROTC issue, and will release a report with recommendations in early March.
MilVets, a group of Columbia grads who are military veterans, issued a statement calling last week's heckling "disgraceful," and noting that Columbia "hosts the largest veteran population of any Ivy League institution," according to a posting on the Columbia Spectator's Spectrum blog.
Wednesday's 8 p.m. hearing, which will focus on faculty and graduate students, will take place at 417 International Affairs Building, Altschul Auditorium.