ROTC Returns To Yale

Gwyneth K. Shaw PhotoTom Opladen expects to see more than a dozen of his fellow Naval ROTC midshipmen from the Yale Class of 1966 at this weekend’s reunion festivities in New Haven. This time, they’ll have something extra to toast besides friendship: ROTC is coming back to the campus, for the first time in more than 40 years.

Opladen (pictured), 66, lives in Larchmont, N.Y. now. He keeps in touch with many of the 33 members of his class who participated in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps.

“We’ve been very disappointed for the last 40 years,” Opladen said, proudly holding a black-and-white photo of his classmates in their white dress uniforms, gloves and all.

He smiled after an elaborate event Thursday in the Corporation Room in Woodbridge Hall, where Yale President Richard C. Levin and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus signed an agreement to restore the unit, beginning in the fall of 2012.

“Yale’s tradition of service in defense of the nation reaches back to our earliest days,” said Levin (at right in the picture).

Mabus noted that “Yale graduates have fought, and have died, in every one of the wars our nation has fought.”

He said bringing ROTC back to Yale would both open up the university as an option for those who want to serve, as well as expose students to a different kind of culture. For some at Yale, this could be their only experience with a member of the military, Mabus said.

For Oplander, it’s welcome news.

The year he graduated “was sort of the transition year before everything blew up,” he said, alluding to the Vietnam War-era controversy that swept ROTC units off college campuses nationwide. At Yale, it happened in 1969. It hasn’t been back since.

Even as relations between the military and universities have thawed over the ensuing decades, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy posed a new hurdle to reinstating ROTC. Many top schools, including Yale and Harvard, wouldn’t consider bringing ROTC back because the policy against openly gay and lesbian service members ran against their anti-discrimination rules. 

But with the congressional vote to repeal the policy late last year, there is a move to embrace the program again.

U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Independent, helped push the repeal through. In a statement, he called Thursday “a great day for Yale.”

Mabus signed a similar agreement earlier Thursday with Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger to bring ROTC back to Columbia; Harvard signed on in March.

Yale students have been able to participate in Army and Air Force ROTC programs over the years, but only if they were willing to commute to UConn or the University of New Haven. The new unit will be the only Naval ROTC unit in Connecticut, part of a consortium with the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and several other schools.

Yale’s faculty approved the idea earlier this month. Levin said that once discussions about the unit began in earnest, a committee led by engineering professor Gary Haller started looking at the resolutions passed by the faculty in 1969. Ostensibly about revoking course credit, they were aimed at pushing ROTC out. But they turned out not to be binding, Levin said.

A slate of new resolutions was brought to the current faculty and approved, paving the way for the agreement.

Asked whether the university’s liberal arts education fits in with the military mindset, Levin said, “Frankly, I think there’s nothing the U.S. military needs more” than students who are as intellectually curious and flexible as Yale’s.

“I think a liberal arts education is a great preparation for military leadership,” he said.

English professor Fred Robinson (pictured) agreed. He said he’d become convinced at ROTC unit was a good idea by years of interactions with his students, some of whom drove to Storrs to get in their military training. One just returned from commanding 300 men in Afghanistan.

With the agreement, Robinson said, Levin and Mabus “have restored the fundamental meaning of Yale’s traditional dedication: ‘For God, for country, and for Yale.’ I think that for many years after 1969, that word, ‘country,’ was lost sight of.”

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