As the war in Iraq approaches its third year of combat, the Peace Project antiwar display installed outside the CSUN ROTC bungalow on Sept. 27 helped renew an ongoing debate over the presence of the Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program on campus.
CSUN President Jolene Koester said that despite the various criticisms involving alleged racism and discrimination in military recruiting, her decision to allow the program on campus was based on the best interests of CSUN.
“My role as president of the university is to make decisions that are in the best overall interest of the university,” she said. “In the case concerning ROTC, I did what I believed was in the best interest for the entire university.”
The ROTC program at CSUN is a 12-cadet attachment of UCLA’s extension program, and ultimately a result of the 1996 Solomon Amendment in which Congress required public universities to accept the ROTC on their campus or lose varying amounts of federal funding.
“Back in January of 2002, (CSUN) received a request from the Army asking to establish an Army ROTC here,” said John Chandler, university spokesperson. “In October of 2002, (the university) entered into an agreement that permitted the UCLA Army ROTC program to offer UCLA extension classes here.”
“When we did that, one of the most significant considerations was the potential loss of an estimated $8 million a year in federal grant funding that the university received for a whole range of federally funded programs,” he said.
“My decision to allow ROTC on campus was made because of my beliefs as to what was in the best interest of the university considering potential loss of federal funding,” Koester said.
Programs most threatened by the loss of this federal funding include CSUN’s Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Progress program, which reaches out to public school children and helps them prepare for college; the National Center for Deafness; and the Minority Biomedical Research Support program, which encourages minority students to go into the sciences.
Aside from funding issues, Koester said CSUN is a place where important ideas and social issues can be debated and discussed, and the presence of ROTC on campus creates the opportunity for discussion.
Though the debate over CSUN ROTC hit its first peak almost three years ago following the signing of the CSUN-military contract, the conversation is still a polarizing one for some students, faculty and staff. As the war in Iraq draws on and casualties continue to mount, the conversation is now framed in a greater degree of urgency.
Citing the fact that the Bush administration has made a point of recruiting Latinos for the armed forces, Rosa Furumoto, professor of Chicano/a Studies, expressed anger over the ROTC’s presence on campus.
“Part of the national strategy from the Pentagon is to target Latinos for recruitment as foot soldiers,” she said. “The thing that bothers me the most is that the policy of the Bush administration has been to fight affirmative action, so here they are fighting against affirmative action for college, but when it comes to the military, they have affirmative action for Latinos. We’re good enough to go fight and die, but we’re not good enough to go to college?”
Chandler said the university’s agreement with the Army contained language about the “Hispanic Access Initiative,” referring to the Pentagon’s focused effort starting in the late 1990s to aggressively recruit Latinos for service in the armed forces.
A major part of the HAI is a military recruiting presence on campuses with high Latino student population.
Army Lt. Col. Shawn Buck, who is in charge of the CSUN ROTC operation and teaches leadership classes for cadets, said the goal of the Army is to reflect the people it serves.
“Clearly we want a diverse group of leaders,” he said. “To say that we target certain groups is not telling the whole story.”
Buck said the military strives to fill its ranks with officers from diverse backgrounds that are representative of the American population.
“These are the folks that would be leading soldiers,” he said. “We want to provide the same opportunity to people of all different backgrounds.”
James Sefton, professor of history, said there is nothing new about the use of military service for personal advancement and improvement, and that he was in favor of having an ROTC program on campus.
“I have no problem with the ROTC being here,” he said. “It encourages development of an armed forces more representative of the people.”
Sefton said the more educated American military ranks are, “the less you have problems like Abu Grab and My Lai,” referring to gruesome scenarios in which American service people alleged abused and humiliated prisoners during the current war in Iraq and massacred a village of peasants during the Vietnam War.
Sefton pointed out the importance of allowing individual students to make choices on their own regarding the military.
“You don’t want to get into a situation where the college as an institution makes a choice as opposed to an individual,” he said. “If you wish to go into the military, you should have that (option) available to you.”
Furumoto views public higher education differently.
“What other choices shall we offer people? Should we have training in pornography?” she said. “Where does the leadership, the vision about what we are preparing our students to do, come in? We can offer anything, but we choose certain things.”
“We need to be thoughtful about what we are offering. Right now we’re providing a program that trains people to supervise the killing and injuring of other people. Is that what we want to prepare our students for? I don’t think so.”
Furumoto worries about the role college students will be forced to play in the global arena once they complete their ROTC training and join the ranks of the military.
“I’m talking about imperialism,” she said. “My concern lies with our government taking control of other lands and peoples. Our country is going in and using force to get their way, ripping off land, extracting wealth. The military should be involved in helping people like (Hurricane) Katrina victims, instead of destroying people’s homelands.”
Furumoto points out one other reason public universities should not accept an ROTC presence on their campuses.
“They (the military) have a policy in place discriminating against gays, which is the reason universities should be allowed to limit ROTC recruiters on campus,” she said, noting that the military’s policy conflicts with the non-discrimination policies of public universities.
“One of the principle issues about the original decision on whether the ROTC should come to (CSUN) was the conflict between the university’s own anti-discrimination policies and the military’s policies regarding gay people in the service,” Chandler said.
Despite this, the university signed the contract.
At the center of the debate over the ROTC on campus is the CSUN student body.
“I don’t think they should be here,” said Sidiki Haidara, sophomore business major. “We don’t need to be in a war. No one’s going to surrender and people are going to keep getting killed. We need to get together and compromise.”
Haidara said he believes a peaceful agreement is far more favorable than war.
His older brother just returned from Iraq, and is currently stationed in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“(My brother’s) talked to me a lot about (his experiences),” Haidara said, recalling a story his brother told him about having to kill an armed Iraqi child. “Kids are walking around with weapons.”
Haidara said the ROTC presence is contradictory to getting a college education.
“Why would anyone want to go and risk their lives when you can just go to college?” he said.
Jessica Hernandez, undeclared sophomore, is more ambivalent about the ROTC’s
“It doesn’t really matter to me,” she said. “It’s none of my business. If you want to join the Army, go ahead.”
Haidara, however, sees the issue as more pressing.
“At the end of the day, nothing gets solved,” he said in regards to the war. “It’s just more bloodshed and violence.”
Bethania Palma can be reached at email@example.com.