Columbia Celebrates Return of Naval ROTC

After a 40-year absence, the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps is settling in at Columbia. A new class of white-clad midshipmen, veterans, faculty, students, members of the administration and alumni gathered at the Italian Academy in September to commemorate the reinstitution of the program.

Gary Shapiro
November 08, 2013

This autumn, Columbia not only marks Veteran’s Day together with more than 550 student military veterans now enrolled at the University, but also the official return of the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps after a 40-year absence.

A new class of white-clad NROTC midshipmen, veterans, faculty, students, members of the administration and alumni gathered at the Italian Academy in September to commemorate the reinstitution of the program. A Navy brass quintet and the entrance of the NROTC Color Guard added a distinctly patriotic flourish.

“This is more than just the return of Naval ROTC to Columbia. It is really a historic moment in which a breach is repaired after four decades,” said President Lee C. Bollinger. Addressing the NROTC students present in the room, he said, “We value you for many reasons, but one of them is that we think the diversity of perspectives that you bring to the University is highly significant, one that I see myself in the classes that I teach.”

The welcome ceremony came after a long gestation. A key step along the way had been the campus visit in 2010 of Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After Congress repealed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in late 2010 barring openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military, the University Senate voted 51-17 the following year in favor of its return. The capstone came when Bollinger and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus signed an agreement aboard the USS Iwo Jima in May 2011, declaring their intention to reinstate NROTC at Columbia.

Wearing a military uniform studded with medals, a man stands at a podium speaking

"Columbia's tremendous support to our men and women in uniform returning from the recent wars is overwhelming, as are the growing numbers of veterans who are woven into the fabric of this great institution," said Mabus. "The return of Naval ROTC to campus will only serve to enhance and strengthen our institutions and continue to contribute to the success of this great country."

The University has been involved in ROTC since the program was first established in 1916, forming one of the first Naval ROTC detachments in the nation. Midshipmen drilled on College Walk, attended classes in naval science, and had hands-on training on ships and submarines in New York’s harbor. During World War II, Columbia’s Midshipmen’s School trained more than 20,000 officer candidates for duty. The University’s formal NROTC agreement dissolved in 1969 amid anti-war protests, and the last of its students earned their commissions in 1973.

Retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. James Lowe (CC’51) a former NROTC student, many of whose classmates were veterans returning from World War II under the auspices of the GI Bill, told the crowd at the Italian Academy, “I’m a little bit jealous of the opportunity of the young officer candidates.” The 84-year-old said that if he were called back tomorrow for duty, “I’d be there at sunrise.\" If so, he would join a motivated group who head two mornings a week to SUNY Maritime College in the Throgs Neck area of the Bronx for early morning physical training under the watchful eye of a Marine gunnery sergeant.

U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Sean Wilkes (CC’06), who as an undergraduate played a pivotal role in advocating for the return of NROTC, working with the University administration and lobbying fellow students and alumni about the merits of the program, said the inscription on Low Library bearing the phrase “for the advancement of the public good” had inspired him, showing him that “Columbia was not a place of mere quiet contemplation, this was a place of action and dynamism.”

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Juan M. Garcia III gave a rousing speech on the role that the Navy plays in the defense of freedom today, saying that its global operations require “access to the most talented, innovative and motivated minds the country has to offer."