Mention “ROTC” and “Washington University” to people of a certain age, and images immediately arise of Quonset huts blazing away in the dead of night, at the height of protests over the war in Vietnam.
In the wake of the 1970 fires, the ability of Washington University students to earn academic credit for ROTC courses also went up in smoke.
Now, after the legacy of anti-military feeling on campus has faded, professors have voted to restore academic credit for those courses, beginning this fall. Courses for freshmen and sophomores will carry one credit each, and those for juniors and seniors will carry three credits each toward the 120 credits required for a bachelor’s degree.
Supporters of the move say ROTC training teaches skills that are valuable both in and out of the Army, and giving students credit for taking such courses will help attract a more diverse student body.
“You talk about ethics,” says Major Derek Martin of the ROTC program at Washington U. “You talk about leadership. You talk about being that person, that stand-up person in your society of ethical value. It’s not just about driving a tank.”
Like a decision earlier this year to bring back the sociology department after it too was discontinued — at least in the minds of some — as a remnant of anti-war dissent, the vote to restore credit for ROTC training is one more sign that times on campus have changed.
Protest is still around — witness the recent student demonstrations and arrests in response to the presence of the head of Peabody Energy on the university’s board of trustees.
But the '60s brand of radicalism long associated with the university has waned, even though professors who were around then and are still a presence on campus today have no problem getting their views across.
“ROTC was a proxy for the foreign policy of this country,” said Michael Friedlander, a professor emeritus of physics who was chairman of a key faculty group between 1968 and 1971. Recalling a heavy schedule of meetings during six hectic springtime weeks in 1970, he said:
“It was a time of intense faculty involvement.”
Friedlander addressed last month’s meeting where professors voted 28-17 to restore the academic credit and made his feelings known.
“I think the general feeling was that times had changed,” he said. “It is 40 years later, and it was time to reconsider this.
“My own feeling still is that it’s inappropriate to give academic credit for those courses. My concern is that this would allow for the appointment of people who have not gone through the normal faculty recruitment channels.”
But Jen Smith, who is dean of Washington U.’s College of Arts and Sciences, says that issue had been addressed and resolved in the minds of the majority.
“A lot of the conversation within our curriculum committee concerned how we could institutionalize the ROTC courses,” she said, “so we felt comfortable that our safeguards for academic quality and academic freedom were taken care of.”
Long period of debate
In the decades after the burning of the ROTC buildings, the issue of restoring academic credit came up periodically but was never resolved.
Jim Craig, who retired last summer from his job as professor of military science at the university, said in an email that efforts to make the change fell short for a variety of reasons — discriminatory policies by the Department of Defense, questions about academic rigor, the technical focus of classes and more.
Craig now chairs the Department of Military and Veterans Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where faculty have also voted this spring to restore academic credit for ROTC courses. He hailed the vote at Washington U. as “a vote of confidence in the rigor of the military science curriculum, the caliber of the instructors, and talent of the ROTC students themselves.”
He also praised Smith for her handling of the issue, saying:
“Her open-minded review of the issue helped shape a coherent and civil discussion, something that had been missing in previous attempts.”
Smith said the issue came into focus for her when Connor Eulberg, a sophomore majoring in international studies and a ROTC cadet, brought it to her attention during the 2012-13 school year.
She looked into the factors involved and the history and eventually decided the time had come for faculty members to vote.
“I don’t know whether anyone had really called the question since 1970,” Smith said.
Eulberg recalls that when he raised the issue, Smith “was completely unaware. She said it had never crossed her mind. It just wasn’t on her radar.”
Initially, he said, he thought the process would move forward swiftly once Smith became involved. But it turned out to be more convoluted than he thought, even though most of the negative feelings associated with the program seemed to have ebbed.
“I didn’t see any outright opposition,” Eulberg said. “In fact, I was much more surprised by how much support there was for our cause. I was immensely grateful, and I know the rest of the leadership was as well.”
He said the upper-level ROTC courses are as rigorous as those in other programs at Washington U., and there will be appropriate faculty oversight for the content that will be taught.
That content, Eulberg added, is useful in a wide variety of fields.
“Military science is not just applicable to the military,” he said. “We focus a lot on leadership skills. We focus on various aspects of critical thinking and higher-level thinking that allows us to make snap decisions with major consequences, to make the right decision in high-stress situations.
“So a lot of military science isn’t necessarily only applicable to the Army. There’s a reason that so many people come out of the Army from the officer corps and immediately go into executive positions in various major companies in the United States. It teaches you to be an excellent leader, an excellent critical thinker, an excellent decision maker.”
Tracy Beckette knows that potential well.
An ROTC cadet in the Washington University program while he was a student at Saint Louis University in the early ‘70s, during the time of anti-war turmoil, he eventually rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Missouri National Guard. He is now an executive vice president at Heartland Bank.
Though retired from the Guard, Beckette maintains an interest in the university’s ROTC program. He said in an interview that the skills he acquired in ROTC have served him well in military and civilian life.
“Back in those days, as well as now, you’re given responsibility to manage classes, to teach lesson plans, to organize exercises, to organize training,” Beckette said. “You’re learning life lessons in terms of how to resolve conflict, how to read people, how to gather folks together and make teams to accomplish a common objective, which are all tools you need in the business community to be successful.
“This is really a practical exercise course. If you were in the business school taking a management course, you would be getting theory. In the ROTC area, you’re not only getting the theory but you’re also getting practical application of what you’re studying because they’re giving you the responsibility to do a specific task or project.”
ROTC also helps cadets concentrate on what they may want to do later in life, he said.
“It got me focused on service,” Beckette said, “and I stayed with it the whole time, I’ve learned a lot of life lessons.
“I used the tools in the military that I learned in business, and I used my business tools in the military. It’s a two-way street. It’s been very beneficial.”
Martin, the instructor for the ROTC courses at Washington U., says those lessons come with a lot of hard work.
“They’re here at six in the morning doing physical fitness,” he said. “They’re here over the weekends doing additional training, studying for our tests, our exams and our classes.
“It takes a lot of time and effort. So when these cadets head into this, I think they deserve the right to get a little bit of credit toward the application of what they commit to here to help them with their studies.”
He knows that times have changed, and he’s grateful for the faculty’s recognition of that fact.
“When things were a little different and perceptions and attitudes were different,” Martin said, “I think we’ve worked really hard to rectify a lot of that perception and attitude toward us as a military and as a society.”
And, he adds, restoring credit for ROTC courses will help the university by attracting students from a wider pool of applicants, particularly those drawn by the financial aid involved.
“When we recruit cadets,” Martin said, “we’re recruiting new students. The Army pays full scholarship to national scholarship winners, and the kids going through Washington University’s recruiting are the same ones who are competing with the academies. They’re competing with Dartmouth, Princeton, UNC-Charlotte, Stanford – all these schools offer credit to those cadets.
“So if I’m a young high school student looking at a program, and all these schools are accepting my applications to come in, and one school is going to offer 12 credit hours toward my major and the other one’s not, quite honestly that can sway an opinion, especially for a high school kid deciding whether to join that school or not. So what we found was that we were losing a lot of high quality students or cadets to our competition.”
And, argues Eulberg, the vote at Washington U. could help bolster the efforts of students elsewhere who want to gain academic credit for their ROTC courses.
“This will definitely give cadets at other schools that still don’t offer academic credit for military science courses the opportunity to maybe reargue their case,” he said, “or maybe even argue their case for the first time if it’s never been argued before.”