Op-Ed: Reflections on the ROTC debate and decision

Opinion by and
May 5, 2011, 12:25 a.m.

Last Thursday, the Faculty Senate passed a motion recommending that President Hennessy initiate discussions with the U.S. military about reinstating ROTC at Stanford. This was the most difficult issue to come before the Senate in many years.

The issues involved in the ROTC debate were complex and varied, involving everything from the University’s obligation to educate our nation’s leaders, to the role of the military in society, to academic control and integrity, among others. But in the end, the issue that garnered the most emotional attention and aroused the most passionate debate was the military’s continuing discrimination against transgender individuals.

The Faculty Senate is often called upon to decide controversial issues. When it does, there are inevitably members of the community who disagree, sometimes strongly, with the outcome. Still, senators are often able to craft compromises that lead to comfortable consensus.

This was different. It was clear that whichever way the decision went, it would be interpreted by some members of the community as a sign of disrespect — a sign that their interests, feelings and principles were somehow less important, less valued, than those of other members of the community.

If the vote went against ROTC, those students whose goal is military service would be told they could pursue this objective, but only if they did so at another institution. How could they see this as anything but a sign that the University viewed their goal as somehow unseemly — something to be pursued out of sight of the rest of the community?

But if the vote went in favor of ROTC, transgender students would see this as a sign that the University condones the military’s policies toward transgender individuals or at the very least considers discrimination against them to be less objectionable than discrimination against gay men and lesbians.

There was not a senator in the room who did not recognize and agonize over this aspect of the debate — who did not wish the issue could be resolved without seeming to favor one part of our community over another.

In the end, the Senate made its decision based on the value that ROTC would bring to the campus and the belief that Stanford has an obligation to help educate military leaders. Although I could not vote as provost, that’s a decision I support. Many senators, deeply troubled by the discrimination, were swayed by the hope that as more military leaders are drawn from communities like ours — communities where tolerance and acceptance are the norm — the more quickly any remaining discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity will genuinely cease.

I hope that is true. And I know that every senator who voted to return ROTC to campus hopes it is true and deeply opposes any policies or practices that discriminate against transgender individuals, as do the president and I.

It took great courage for our transgender students to publicly express their opposition to ROTC. I thank them for doing so. I appreciate the heartfelt and moving statements made by fellow students, particularly the new and outgoing presidents of the ASSU. It continues to trouble me that any student would interpret the ROTC decision as a sign that the University does not honor and respect its transgender students, faculty and staff.

I wish the ROTC debate could have been resolved without divisiveness. As provost, I hope some good will come of the issues raised and the discussion that ensued. I hope the campus will come together to recognize the continuing ignorance and hostility transgender people face, to affirm our condemnation of that discrimination and to express how much we value their membership in the University community.

Our community is far from perfect, but it is remarkably accepting. Let us use this opportunity to reaffirm our values and to strengthen our community.


John Etchemendy

Stanford Provost

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