At the third and final town hall on ROTC Wednesday night, opponents of the program’s return to campus attacked the town hall process itself.
Students continued to make arguments for and against inviting the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps back to Columbia. But there was a greater focus on the way the University Senate has been soliciting student opinion, with some opponents questioning whether the debate is rigged in favor of ROTC.
Anthropology professor Marilyn Ivy was one of several speakers who criticized the composition of the University Senate task force on military engagement, which has organized the town halls to solicit opinions on ROTC. Ivy noted that task force member Jim Applegate, an astronomy professor, has been a vocal ROTC proponent in the past. Applegate recently signed a faculty petition in favor of the program’s return.
“We are repeatedly told that the task force is impartial and nonpartisan, but surely the person who plays such a central role in these task forces could have at least the appearance of neutrality,” Ivy said.
Applegate told Spectator that he and USenate executive committee chair Sharyn O’Halloran chose the committee’s four faculty members. He said they tried to get a member from each undergraduate school that is voting in the University Senate’s survey—Columbia College, Barnard College, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the School of General Studies—but that they could not find a Barnard senator for the committee. He added that two senators who had previously signed a letter opposing ROTC declined to be on the committee.
Ron Mazor, CC ’09, Law ’12, and co-chair of the task force, said that in choosing student senators for the task force, he looked for students who had the time and ability to do large amounts of editing and writing, which has been the bulk of the task force’s work. He said he tried to find students who “didn’t necessarily have a strong opinion on these issues.”
“I simply went on ability to work and interest in serving on the task force,” Mazor said.
Ivy added that Mazor “repeatedly refused to tell” her who all the members of the task force were. A list of the task’s force nine members is available on the University Senate website.
Some graduate students criticized the task force for not opening its survey on ROTC to all of the graduate schools.
“I’m ... disturbed about the lack of transparency with the entire process, and I want to know where my vote is,” Alaa Milbes, a GSAS student and ROTC opponent, said after the event.
Mazor said that technology issues prevented them from sending the poll to the entire student body, and that the Columbia University Information Technology department “dropped everything else they were doing” to ensure that the poll could be sent to 10,000 students at five schools. Mazor has said that the task force chose these five schools because they are the only ones that had produced off-campus ROTC cadets in the last five years. He added that the task force is still seeking the opinions of students not included in the survey, both through the town halls and by soliciting emails.
A few said that the University Senate displayed a bias from the start by establishing a task force in response to Congress’ repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in December.
“There is a belief that with the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ there is no longer discrimination against the LGBTQ community,” Karen Woodin, CC ’11, said. The military continues to prohibit transgendered individuals from serving.
University Provost Claude Steele made the opening remarks at the event, saying that while he might have an opinion on ROTC, he was there primarily to learn about the different points being made by each side.
Even though the current debate has been going on since December, it continues to draw in new participants. Asher Levine, GSAS ’11, said he decided to support ROTC after reading some literature that an anti-ROTC group was handing out on College Walk.
“They seemed like really specious arguments that confused thoughts about the military—and American foreign policy in general—with what the ROTC really is and would do on campus,” Levine said.
Several speakers also discussed the heckling of injured veteran Anthony Maschek by a few attendees at last week’s town hall, a moment which drew national media attention. Referring to the incident as “HeckleGate,” Stephen Snowder, GS and a veteran, called it a “faux controversy.”
Anger over Maschek’s heckling led to scattered threats against Columbia students on some news websites earlier this week. A few security officers stood by the entrance of the International Affairs Building’s Altschul Auditorium, where this town hall took place.
Levine, who had not attended either of the first two town halls, said he was “surprised at how civil” this one was.
“I figured well, you know, there’s cops, there’s going to be something going down,” he said.