No More Urban Officers? How an Uneven ROTC May Change Our Military

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.

"It's at the bottom of their inbox. They're not necessarily prejudiced; they just don't have the time to think about 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.