In 2006, the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling upholding the Solomon Amendment, a Congressional law that requires colleges and universities to permit military recruiting on campuses, or face losing federal funding for their entire university systems. The ruling, which came following a challenge by numerous law schools that refused to cave in on their non-discrimination policies by allowing the U.S. military on campus, seemed to settle the issue - for publicly funded schools, at least - once and for all. And, as I noted in The New York Times at the time, it also provided an opportunity to re-focus the campus debate on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the campaign for repeal and the stories of LGBT Americans who want to serve, and have already done so.
Not surprisingly, immediately following the ruling, many colleges announced they would comply with the justices' decision. Not doing so, after all, would have meant colossal cuts in budgets for many critically important institutions, such as Harvard Medical School, which receives millions of dollars in public funding for often ground-breaking research and testing. But this week, the issue has re-emerged as one school, which is also the recipient of significant federal funds, expressed dismay at the possible return of military recruiters to its campus.
Columbia University's President is taking a principled, and potentially costly, stand against LGBT discrimination. In an email recently sent to students, Lee Bollinger declared that he was concerned about the possible return of an ROTC program to the campus, because of the federal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law that bars openly gay Americans from the armed forces.
"Under the current 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy of the Defense Department, openly gay and lesbian students could or would be excluded from participating in ROTC activities. That is inconsistent with the fundamental values of the university," he said in his message to the Columbia community.
According to this morning's New York Sun, students on campus are engaging in a once-again-hot debate about whether Columbia, which has a strong non-discrimination policy protecting LGBT students, should abandon that commitment to equality in exchange for receiving federal funds.
"Several student leaders have been advocating for a student-wide referendum on the military program," the Sun reported today. "Their plan is to host two community forums in October featuring pro-ROTC and anti-ROTC students, to be followed by a student-wide survey a week later."
"In a 2003 survey", the paper noted, "65% of Columbia students said they supported ROTC's return. But in 2005, the university senate voted in favor of upholding the ban. Mr. Bollinger voted with the majority."
At that time, Columbia made ROTC programs available to students who wanted to participate through a partnership with other schools in the area, including Fordham University and Manhattan College. That program, however, would not meet the requirements of the 2006 Supreme Court ruling, which clearly stated that recruiters must be given broad, on-campus access to students where they are enrolled. Not doing so would mean an almost-certain loss of funding.
Now Columbia, and other schools, are debating whether to comply or go for broke while defending their principles. But what was true in 2006, is still true today: The high court, right or wrong, has stood solidly, and united, behind Solomon, and is not apt to reverse its opinion anytime soon. And so it is incumbent, and essential, that our attention focus on the battle that is winnable: Organizing, at the grassroots, campus level, to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" once and for all. Doing so would also remove the barriers that Solomon put between schools and their non-discrimination policies . . . and create opportunity for any qualified student to have a career in the military, regardless of who they are.
"The notion that young people here at Columbia aren't offered a choice or an option in participating in military service is a mistake," Senator Barack Obama said during a forum held on its campus. And he's right: Americans shouldn't be denied a military career because they are LGBT, and schools shouldn't be forced to give up well-deserved funding in order to stand up for their students who are gay.
Why should the government continue to insist that medical research . . . cutting edge physics work . . . and critically important legal clinics (among other projects) all be held hostage in order to perpetuate discrimination and soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who happen to be gay?
In 2006, I told the Times that I "believed that the [Solomon] ruling was likely to help build momentum for a repeal of the ban, and that it would increase interest in the issue among young adults."
Two years later, with an election on the horizon and an opportunity to resolve the real issue behind the campus ROTC debate, the time has come for those young adults - and all of us - to rally and stand up. The easiest way to render Solomon null and void - and to create a real, fundamental change for the LGBT community - is to organize and urge Congress to lift the ban.