No More Urban Officers? How An Uneven ROTC May Change Our Military By Colin Daileda


DeM Banter: N/A at this time…
July 23, 2012

Big-city campuses once produced superstars like Colin Powell. Today, those programs are dwindling — which may lead to a whiter, more rural military.

When cadet Kevin Poon arrives at St. John’s University in the dark of early morning for physical training, he stands among about 80 other cadets in the football field encircled by the school’s red track, quietly waiting for 6 a.m. and the start of warm-up drills. He says hello and nods to some, all of whom are dressed like he is in gray “ARMY” t-shirts and black shorts.

About half of the cadets, like Poon, are idly shifting their weight and glancing around sleepily before they have to form a series of lines and stand at attention. They are commuters. The other half talk and laugh amongst themselves, their shouts piercing the cool morning air as they while away the minutes. They are non-commuters who live, work, and train together on campus.

Poon, a bespectacled Asian American sporting a buzz cut, is a senior at St. John’s ROTC in Queens, one of only two Army ROTC programs in New York City. He has persevered through four years, since he was a freshman, but he thinks of his fellow cadets more as professional partners than friends.

“I have a working relationship with my comrades,” Poon said. “I do what they ask. They do what I ask. No hostility, but no intimacy.”

Poon’s experience is typical among cadets in the Northeast, where ROTC programs are few and far between. New York City is home to nearly 600,000 students and 80 colleges. The city’s population of 8 million is equivalent to Virginia’s, yet the city has only four ROTC programs on college campuses, compared with Virginia’s 11.

Many New York schools severed their ties with the ROTC during the 1960s, when anti-war protests broke out across campuses in the Northeast. When the draft ended, the military slipped even further into the background, where it has remained ever since. In response, the Armed Forces have stopped making much of an effort to recruit in the area. Even City University of New York, the third-largest public university system in America and the one that commissioned General Colin Powell, no longer has an ROTC program.

With so few programs available, cadets must undergo long commutes simply to take part in the program. Poon, for instance, lives in Newkirk Plaza, Brooklyn, a 1-hour-and-40-minute ride to St. John’s via public transportation. He wanted to be a part of ROTC, and St. John’s was the closest school to his home that offered it.

Therefore, much of his life takes place on the subway. Cadets have physical training three times a week and one day of military science class, as well as “lab,” where they run practice drills wherever they can find some open space. This means that Poon must make it to campus at least four times a week.

“It’s physical training in itself just to get here and back,” Poon said. Train schedules float through his brain as often as checklists of homework he has to finish. For him, ROTC is a series of weekly tasks. He appears for classes, eats, shows up for physical training, and often sits doing homework in D’Angelo Hall, the campus’s flagship building, until the early hours of the morning.

When there’s simply too much to get done, rather than go home, Poon will walk across campus from D’Angelo, pull out a sleeping bag and change of clothes from his locker, and set up camp by one of the many couches spread throughout the main floor. He has few friends at St. John’s. Some he met through other classes, some through different organizations he belongs to, but mostly he hangs out with people back home.

In contrast, for on-campus cadets at St. John’s, life revolves much more around ROTC. They roll out of bed in the early morning, knowing that in rooms down the hall their buddies are doing the same. They go to class together, study together, drink together, drill together. ROTC programs are meant to be this way to instill a sense of belonging, to bind a group of individuals into an “Army of One.” In Southern and Western regions of the country, they do this well. But for Northern city dwellers like Poon — who make up half of the ROTC program at St. John’s — that kind of camaraderie can be hard to achieve.

“Commuters are sort of second class citizens in the ROTC program, in the way that you interact with students,” said Sean Wilkes, a Columbia student-turned ROTC recruiter who participated in Army ROTC at Fordham University. “That sense of community, that fraternity aspect, is lost.” This in turn leads to a shortage of urban-bred officers, which, combined with a lackluster effort by the military to recruit officers in the Northeast, has led to dysfunctional and inaccessible city ROTC programs in this region.

Cheryl Miller, who wrote a report for the American Enterprise Institute entitled “Underserved: A Case Study of ROTC in New York City,” believes that the lack of ROTC host-campuses and poor transportation to the few campuses that do have programs is one of the main reasons so few officers come out of urban environments.

There is only one campus in the five boroughs — Manhattan College in the Bronx — that hosts Air Force ROTC. If, for example, a student from Queens College wants to commission as an Air Force officer upon graduation, he or she will have to travel more than three hours round-trip for classes. State University of New York Maritime at Throgg’s Neck in the Bronx hosts the city’s only Navy ROTC program. Columbia students, who used to have a naval ROTC program on campus, now have to travel 75 minutes to participate.

Not surprisingly, there is some evidence that students are most willing to join ROTC when there’s no need to travel at all. In a poll at Brown University, seven percent of students interviewed said they would be interested in ROTC if it were on campus, compared with only one percent who said they would be willing to commute.

“My guess is you’d get significantly more people if you actually had a program on campus,” said Dr. Michael Segal, a leader of the national Advocates for ROTC.

Wilkes, the former Columbia student-turned-recruiter, once spent over an hour on the phone with an officer in Virginia trying to explain that cadets in New York City don’t have cars and must rely on public transportation to get where they need to be. He doesn’t believe that a host program at every campus in New York is feasible, nor does he expect the military to provide its own transportation system. But he does think the ROTC can do much better than placing four programs in five boroughs.

“Fordham’s good for the Bronx, but look at where the colleges are,” Wilkes said referring to one of the few New York City campuses where ROTC is offered. “It’s much better to put a program in Manhattan, where it’s centralized. At a minimum, that’s what they should have. But what I would like to see is an actual, full-blown program in each borough.” In order for a program to be “full-blown,” he explains, it would need to include Army, Navy, and Air Force ROTC.

The solution may lie in satellite programs, a model that has worked well in Pennsylvania. The University of Pittsburgh’s ROTC program serves as a centralized location for five other schools, including Duquesne University only three miles away. But Duquesne had only 3 to 5 cadets per year in ROTC until the university asked for a representative on campus five years ago. After that, the program ballooned to 10 to 12 cadets, and it will have between 17 to 20 this coming fall.

Ted Graske, who heads the Advocates of ROTC chapter at Columbia and graduated from the school in 1959, believes New York City will eventually have a centralized ROTC program, but warns not to expect it anytime soon. “You have to kind of wait in line,” Graske said. “Columbia is headed in the right direction, but somewhat at what we call glacier speed.”

In the meantime, says Miller, the disproportionate number of ROTC campuses in the South and West has created a military that doesn’t culturally represent the U.S. This seems to undercut the main mission of the ROTC program, which has its origins in the Morrill Act of 1862. The government, in the throes of the Civil War, was afraid of having a military taught and trained solely at specific Armed Forces institutions such as West Point or the Naval Academy. The Morrill Act established the new land-grant colleges and made military science a part of their curricula. The goal was to create a new generation of officers who had a civilian perspective — leading to a military from which no region of the country would feel alienated.

Today, the reduced number of ROTC host programs has contributed to a sense of distance between Northeast college students and their peers in the military. And it may alienate some of the best potential officers in the nation, particularly diverse candidates from urban areas.

“By overlooking institutions like CUNY — among the top producers of African-American baccalaureates — the military is not accessing minority officers fully reflective of the population,” Miller says in her study. “This absence might account, in part, for the lack of black officers in the top leadership ranks.” The Navy’s first black admiral, Vice Admiral Samuel Gravely Jr., graduated from Columbia. And of course, there was Powell, who took part in the City College ROTC and, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rose higher than any other graduate of the program.

The military often counters that, for many reasons, setting up more ROTC programs in the South and West is significantly cheaper than doing so in the Northeast. For starters, land in the Northeast is expensive, and the military can’t afford to put an ROTC program just anywhere. Plus, there’s simply more interest in ROTC programs in the South and the West, which makes the Armed Forces more eager to expend resources there.

Miller agrees that military lifestyle is more prevalent in other parts of the country, but she argues that not recruiting or promoting ROTC in the urban Northeast only makes that gap more pronounced. “It’s a self-fulfilling policy,” she said.

The problem, according to Paul Mawn, who heads the Advocates for ROTC movement at Harvard University in Boston, is that recruiters simply don’t care enough about getting a diverse range of officers right now. The military was recently reduced in size — just half of one percent of Americans are part of the Armed Services, the smallest amount since after World War II. Accordingly, the military has no shortage of officer applicants.

“It’s at the bottom of their inbox,” Mawn said. “They don’t need more officers now. They can get them from other places. They’re not necessarily prejudiced; they just don’t have the time to think about it.”

All of this is why Poon experienced what he calls “culture shock” when he arrived at Fort Lewis, Washington, for the course in Leadership Assessment and Development taken by every ROTC senior. Poon was an Asian-American amidst a sea of white people, something the native Brooklynite had never experienced. As he stepped off the bus and waited in line after line for processing, the makeup of ROTC outside one of the most diverse places on Earth began to set in.

Though Asians were a minority in his ROTC outfit, they had always had a visible presence there, making up roughly the same ratio they did within the greater New York population. But here, 3,000 miles from home, Poon recalls rooming with white kids from the rural South who hung out at Walmart all night because there simply wasn’t much else to do once the sun went down.

After Poon graduated in May, he became a second lieutenant in the logistics branch of the Army. He’s required to serve a minimum of four years active duty followed by four more years of being a reserve officer. He can always opt for more, but, like many, he’s not sure what he’ll decide.

“It’s like anything else; if I like my employer, I’ll stay,” Poon said. “If I don’t, I’ll leave.”

The word “employer” seems telling. After four long years of commuting, Poon still feels a sense of detachment from his fellow soldiers, and from the institution they represent. For him, the ROTC was just a training program for a job — not the band of brothers it is for so many future soldiers.

Colin Daileda is a writer living in New York City.

9 Replies to “No More Urban Officers? How An Uneven ROTC May Change Our Military By Colin Daileda”

  1. Geez, this has all the hallmarks of Janowitz’ description of the subculture that is the military, and the selection process that leads to it in the “The Professional Soldier”. The reasons may be different, but the results are the same. No surprises here….

  2. OK, I’ll bite… Here is a thought… Recent demographic studies over the past few election cycles have shown that the USA is not really about red states and blue states any more. The reality now is that larger metropolitan areas tend to vote differently than the rest of the country. In short it is blue cities and red “the rest”. For example, people in a large city like Seattle for instance, would tend to view the surrounding country side as a place that should be preserved pristine so that they can ride their mountain bikes in a ‘wild’ places. The people that live in that surrounding country side tend to view that same space as the place where they earn their living and would tend to want to have that area treated accordingly. There are other political differences between the larger metro areas and the surrounds as well e. g. the role of government is but one key difference. You don’t have to look very hard to discern those differences. Increasingly, it is the major metropolitan areas that have enough votes to carry key states in elections. Los Angeles and San Francisco alone could carry the state of California if they voted the same on major issues. The balance of power has shifted from states to metro areas, but electoral votes are still (mostly) counted at the state level.

    Returning to your example above, what does the lack of officer recruitment in major metropolitan areas say about how connected the military is to the electorate? I see the military today as somewhat disconnected already. Personally, I think that places the military in the honorable position of being the defenders of traditional American values. Of course, the rub is that those traditional values are no longer the majority values.

    Janowitz wrote about the background of the typical officer in his period and described them as typically from small town USA, possessing a strong work ethic and having other specific social/religious values that are largely reflective of our western European heritage. He also described the civilianization of many military skills that were evolving at that time and posited that many people coming from poorer urban areas would use the military as a means of economic mobility. Join up, learn a trade, get some experience, then jump to a civilian career in a transplanted location with better opportunity. That was back in a time when American culture was a bit more homogenous. Continued lack of recruitment in major metro areas will further emphasize this difference in the officer corps.

    Your example highlights a similar difference in the makeup of the military community at large today, but there is a key change in alignment of the politics of communities at work now as well. That leads me to wonder if increasingly the makeup of the military officer corps will not be representative of the culture and cultural values they serve. Such a difference has implications for national policy as well as the equitable sharing of the burden to protect and defend what is “America”. This leads to several hard questions:

    – Does the military then become a separate (minority) class within America? Are the officers the high priests of that minority class?
    – How do we ensure that the future US military is representative of those they serve?
    – Can you really do that in an all volunteer environment that tacitly allows schools that receive Federal aid to opt out of civic responsibilities?
    – If schools really are supposed to be about free thought, how can they justify stifling discussion about the use of the M part of DIME in national power?

    I would be interested in your thoughts on this.



    1. Ben: Great points, I have pondered today and really come up with very little…call it lack of sleep, as your thoughts are very good and very deep. I can’t help but think of Brave New World and 1984. One thought I have been pondering for a long while is… the military is only 0.48% of American society… so when politicians look to cut benefits, equipment, military entitlements, they really impact very few people…initially. Of course when the military is called to action, this is another story. If they are not equipped to protect and defend…we have bigger issues. But if politicians are looking for quick gains in cutting deficits…DoD is a perfect target.
      Another thought… I think it is somewhat safe to say… many if not the majority are GOP supporters (not that we can say that). So what does cutting the military do for a politician? Is a political decision? I’m not sure… but the average military member does not make a ton of money, they do have pretty good benefits that appear to be eroding, but what does this do to an all volunteer force? Will Americans continue to serve…no one jumps in for the money, I know that…but there comes a time where these things might outweigh other opportunities and we no longer draw America’s best.
      We are see some very interesting shifts in ROTC recruiting as well. Scholarships are taking a big hit…so with fewer opportunities we are now focusing on high GPAs and SAT/ACT scores, so are we saying high grades equal great leaders? Or high grades equate to those that get through technical training and get promoted BTZ…are those two things the same? I think we are assuming they are.
      Okay… that was just DeMarco Banter… not really an answer to your question. But my gut says keeping diversity is important. I don’t necessarily equate that to gender or race… but diversity of thought… which is usually based on diversity of experiences. So if we get most of our military from one portion of the country or one demographic (high grades)…we impact our military and our country in a less than optimal way.
      Call it the Clone Wars….

  3. Ben, great thoughts. Bill thanks for sharing this. I don’t always read them nor find myself wanting to react to the military articles you post but this one has caught my attention because it touches upon leadership and organization development as well as hitting a personal button.

    One problem with the article’s argument – it makes the assumption that the students who live in a metropolitan area stay there to go to school. This is too black & white. Some city kids will attend schools in “rural” areas and vice versa. It makes a blanket assumption and does not provide real data to support its argument.

    What disturbs me most is the kid looking at the military as “just an employer”. I never worked for or with the Navy. I was in the Navy. I swore an oath of allegiance as an officer. It was a moral commitment. Since leaving the Navy, I haven’t had to do that with any of my corporate employers where loyalty, cameraderie, and esprit-de-corps have zero meaning. Being an officer is more than “just a job”. As an officer you take a company into a war zone, and you worry about your people 24/7. You do everything in your power to bring every single one of them home again safe and sound. It isn’t a 9-5 job.

    Let’s just say that the writer is on to something for the sake of argument. Then maybe ROTC programs should consider introducing into their own developmental curriculum exchange programs which will introduce and immerse their students into a metropolitan culture or take them out to the country if they attend schools such as St. Johns. An african-american officer from Manhattan can no better understand an enlisted african-american from the deep south than a white officer from Greeley, CO can understand a enlisted white from Seattle.

    What’s the big deal about metropolitan areas anyway? A CEO of a non-US global company wanted to hold a meeting of the company’s 500 international top executives in NYC becomes he believed that that city would give them the best feeling for what America is, and because there is a buzz, a vibe, there. I tried to explain to him that in inner NYC ca. 40% of the population aren’t (yet) American citizens and that the buzz comes from the anxiety and fear of whether people will be able to pay this month’s rent or afford their next meal. As Ben points out, NYC isn’t any more representative of America than LA or SF is. Richard Florida, an American urban studies theorist, described in his book “The Rise of the Creative Class” the growing polarization of American morals and values as people moved to communities of “like minded people”. This is definitely redefining America, and is, in my opinion, the greatest, and potentially most dangerous, challenge the country is currently facing.

    Social demographers have shown that urbanization is a serious global trend. The reality for the military is that if it still wants access to diverse top talent pools for its officer corps then its ROTC programs must also urbanize. At the same time, I think they would do well in checking their screening techniques to ensure that boys and girls don’t go through four years believing that they are working for just any old employer where they can call in sick if they are having a bad day, punch the 9-5 clock, and check-out if they’re unhappy. Our enlisted men and women deserve better.

    1. Great comments Roger… I commented on Ben’s and then read yours, but I think what I was running on with up there applies here… diversity is important…we need officers that think different from each other.
      When Marshall took over as Chief of Staff prior to WWII he removed several (hundred?) generals he felt could not adapt to the new forms of warfare…he selected leaders not necessarily in the running for command but those he thought were the most diverse (rumors of his “little black book,” some say did not really exist because it was never found…not sure that proves anything) and adaptable Many of these future leaders would pass through Marshall’s staff. Among them Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, J. Lawton Collins, George Patton, Matthew Ridgeway, and Maxwell Taylor…these were not the heir apparent. They were diverse…granted…white males, but diverse in their thought and adaptability… not chained to old ways of thinking. This was the ultimate war of the Industrial Revolution. What are we doing today to prepare our leaders for the ultimate war of the Information Revolution? It will require a totally different way of thinking… we can see the fringes of the conflict now.
      Diversity is key to new ways of thinking…. I will have to pick up Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class.”
      Okay… a tad off topic perhaps, but something I have been thinking a great deal about.

  4. Hi Roger and Bill,

    I agree wholeheartedly with the concept Roger described about the oath and the moral obligations that officers take on with their commissions. I refer to that as “a calling” and that calling is one thing that I think very few career choices can claim. Off the top of my head, I consider three career choices as members of that group: the clergy, the medical doctors, and the professional military. To answer that call is to accept of the moral burden that accompanies the call. As was pointed out, it is not about money, it is all about making sure all the souls in your care are honored and as much as possible, returned to their families in as good or better condition than they were provided to you. This is not “a chore” for the faint of heart, and as you pointed out it is an all consuming task — it is on the forefront of your mind always. As you pointed out, this is not just any job — each of us is responsible for the lives entrusted to us, and also responsible to preserve the nation as a whole. Last time I looked at the help wanted ads, I didn’t see that point in the job description for any of the postings.

    Bill touched on the point about budget cuts and political gain. I will only briefly enter this foray to make a few points. First, balancing the budget by kicking the can under the threat of the current sequestration plan is worse than playing with fire. That there is a window of opportunity for a lame duck session to address this issue via a C.R. bridge to the next administration means that there was a carefully calculated abrogation. Seriously, how can anybody plan for the future in an environment where no one knows what the rules are? Congress needs to do its duty.

    Oh, and just like letting GM go under would have killed lots of other jobs in the supply chain, a big enough axe to DoD will also have second order effects as well. I think the impact on this one goes much further though. We are really down to a key few that make the capability to do what we do. There are now only a few entities that regularly grow and exercise the talent needed to invent the next generation of capabilities. I am not sure that the current path is sustainable if we are to remain pre-eminent, and I believe the consequences of the current fiscal crisis are very foreseeable. The current national discourse on this issue is woefully lacking in its effects analysis. It is interesting to ponder that globalization means that our national interest now extends to a lot of places that would not have been considered a few years ago. It is also interesting to consider that a national budget is really a statement of national morals. I am not saying we need to be a global police force, but I am saying that the national interest has changed since globalization arrived. While I am increasingly pessimistic that the current political climate intentionally sub-optimizes issues of national import for self-serving desires, I remain hopeful that the give and take designed into our government by the founders will take care of these bumps in the road as it has done for the past 236 years.

    I’ll get off the soap box now, I need to practice the pipes before the weekend gets here.



    1. Agree and I failed to address in my diatribe…this is why they call it “the Service” and why we “serve” in the military…much more than an employer. That caught my attention as well Roger. Interesting comment from a young cadet

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