Many elite universities kicked ROTC off campus during the Vietnam War and never brought it back. But in truth, the military's policies toward homosexuals were, for the most part, merely an excuse for keeping recruiters at bay. The attenuated memories of Vietnam, a restoration of patriotic sentiment, a far less turbulent student body and the trauma of 9/11 have made it easier to contemplate the return of ROTC. During the 2008 election campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain both supported it.
And in theory, who could object? ROTC offers another career path and tuition assistance to recession-spooked undergraduates. It is entirely voluntary, and even if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unpopular among the professoriate, faculty have made some progress since 1968 in their ability to distinguish between a policy and those who execute it.
This moment of apparent reconciliation between academic gowns and uniforms, however, will yield little unless all concerned realize how difficult it will actually be to return ROTC to elite campuses. The two cultures have, over more than a generation, grown apart. Neither relishes the idea of coming back together.
Except for a tiny minority, students will not oppose ROTC. Faculty of a certain generation are more likely to have reservations. Some will stereotype those stiff-backed, austerely groomed young men and women in uniform, many of whom will not embrace the politics of the modern campus. The military is, in the nature of things, conservative; and for some time, elite universities have been liberal. (That, by the way, is an excellent reason to force them to interact.) As any dean knows, faculties are masters of passive-aggressive behavior, and while they may not overtly reject ROTC, they can find ways of containing or obstructing it. Tussles for office space, refusal of excused absences for training or merely a stream of disparaging remarks can make it clear that ROTC may be present but is not welcome.
More serious resistance, however, may come from the military. As has become distressingly clear to me in numerous conversations with serving officers, many really do not want to return to the Harvards, Stanfords and Yales of our country. They fear that going back to the Ivies will prove inefficient and doubt they can recruit many elite undergraduates. Some officers and sergeants will feel uncomfortable, if not downright insecure, dealing with Ivy League professors.
The services will have to give up some (silly) rules, such as requiring that the military appoint a voting member of the host university's faculty or insisting on course credit for military training. And deep down, some officers simply do not want all that many young people who belong to a class that is now unfamiliar with military service and out of touch with - and possibly hostile to - military culture.
So why go through this trouble? First, whatever one thinks of the state of American humanities and social sciences, the students who go to top colleges and universities are smart, hardworking and able. Our armed forces need them. And the military won't know how many of the top students it can recruit unless it tries hard to do so.
More important, though, these young people, who will some day run our businesses and our politics, should share the burden of national defense. The symbolism as well as the substance of having ROTC on elite campuses matters. Reaching the pinnacle of our educational system is in itself a privilege; morally healthy schools, and the society they serve, tell young people that privilege implies obligation and responsibility. There is no deeper or nobler discharge of that responsibility than putting your life on the line for your country.