By Leslie Albrecht
MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — There was no heckling, but plenty of passion as Columbia University wrestled Wednesday night with the question of whether to allow the Reserve Officers Training Corps — ROTC — back on campus after a 42-year absence.
"There is media present, so please be aware," a moderator reminded the crowd before plunging into two hours of debate at the university's third and final public meeting to gather opinion on ROTC, the military training program Columbia ousted in 1969.
The warning was a reference to what's become known on campus as "Hecklegate," when students heckled an injured Iraq war vet who spoke in favor of ROTC at a public meeting last week.
A story about the incident in the New York Post sparked a national firestorm of criticism, with pundits and online commenters painting the school as a hotbed of anti-military sentiment.
The attacks clearly stung, prompting a story in the Columbia Daily Spectator about how students were "worried" that the media coverage took the incident out of context and didn't accurately portray what had been a mostly civil discussion.
Some military veterans who are also Columbia students defended the university Wednesday night. Brendan Rooney, president of Milvets, the school's veterans group, said the heckling didn't reflect Columbia's "consensus attitude" toward veterans.
"On the contrary, its enthusiastic support of military veterans is precisely the reason why Columbia now hosts the largest veteran population of any Ivy League institution: 340 in total, over 200 of whom are undergraduates," Rooney said.
Stephen Snowder, an Iraq war vet who's a student at Columbia's School of General Studies, said he was "disturbed and embarrassed" by the heckling, but even more upset by the news stories that followed.
"The faux controversy that has been manufactured by Hecklegate has been extremely disappointing," Snowder said, adding that students who are strangers sometimes thank him for his military service.
"If I thought for one second that Columbia hated the military, I would transfer," Snowder said.
Anti-ROTC students and faculty at the meeting argued the university shouldn't allow ROTC on campus in part because the military discriminates against transgendered people.
Others accused the military of waging an "endless war" in Iraq, aiming its recruiting efforts at low-income communities and fostering an environment of discrimination against women and minorities.
The heartiest applause came when speakers criticized the university senate, with some accusing the senate's Task Force on Military Engagement of operating in near-secrecy and not providing enough information about how an ROTC program would function on Columbia's campus.
The university senate, a 108-member governing body made up of students, faculty, and administration, voted in 2005 to keep ROTC off Columbia's campus, in part because of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Now that Don't Ask Don't Tell has been repealed, the senate is revisiting the issue.
Columbia students are allowed to participate in ROTC, but if they want to do it, they have to commute to Fordham University's facilities in the Bronx and at Lincoln Center.
The university senate's ROTC task force gathered opinion at three hearings and through a campuswide survey. The group will write a report on its findings, then issue a recommendation to the full senate in early March.
A vote on the matter is expected in March or April.