The discussion about ROTC’s discriminatory practices, as I have seen it, often got lost in details and positioning when I think it should have centered around two fundamental questions. One question is: what amount of “bad” should people put up with when supporting an institution? The other is: what tactics should be used to change the “bad”?*
One objection to allowing ROTC on campus was that it would mean Stanford supports an institution that does some things that we do not like. When ROTC was originally kicked off, it was because people strongly objected to what the US military was doing and did not want to support an institution that was part of the military. The present debate is about whether or not we should support LGBT discrimination in the military, be it written in law or conducted through policy or personal biases.
Except, “support” is complicated because institutions are complicated. ROTC does all sorts of things to train and teach. Are all of them bad? Of course not. By letting ROTC on campus, does that mean we support the bad parts? By keeping ROTC off campus, does that mean we are against the good parts?
In my opinion, one should weigh the good elements of an institution against the bad ones in deciding whether to “support” it. People will have different threshold levels regarding how many more good elements than bad elements there need to be to support an institution, but I think a threshold of 100% is too high. The world is just way too complicated to be so absolute. China perpetuates human rights abuses, but I’m sure you’ve bought something Made in China. Climate change is caused by burning fossil fuels, but we still drive gasoline-powered cars and use electricity that’s produced by coal plants. Technically, we are “supporting” China and “supporting” companies that use dirty forms of energy.
But we do so while at the same time working to change those institutions. Support and change are not mutually exclusive. You can support an institution while trying to fix the aspects of it you do not support.
Onto the second question, which is about political strategy tactics for policy change.
Let’s abstract the conversation a bit. In any government institution, discrimination could be
(1) codified by law
(2) not codified in law, but a practice carried out because of procedures or personal bias
Clearly, we want to remove the discriminatory laws and change the discriminatory practices when and where they exist. We are familiar with how laws change: either you are in the government and changing them, or you are outside the government and pressuring lawmakers to change laws or making a case to a judge to interpret a law in a particular way.
Changing non-codified discriminatory practices is a bit more complicated. You can sue. You can ask a representative to practice their oversight responsibility and pressure the agency to stop them. You can become part of the agency and change the practices from within through codified policies or some kind of management strategy. Or you could work on more general efforts of social change that teach people to be intolerant of discrimination. Etc.
So, what could an institution like Stanford do? The two main tactics I heard about are that Stanford should:
(1) Allow ROTC on campus so that the student body can hear another perspective. People in ROTC will hear anti-discrimination messages, and other students will learn more about the military. Both types of people might be able to make ROTC change in the future.
(2) Not allow ROTC on campus as a symbolic statement. This would be part of a larger effort to bring media and attention to the discriminatory practices in the hopes that it would pressure the government to change laws or non-codified practices.
Unfortunately, it is very hard to predict the efficacy of those two policy options. They are both incredibly indirect as means of changing law or practice. One of them hopes that in thirty years some tolerant Stanford alums will have key positions in the legislature or the military and will change policy. The other hopes that Stanford’s name would have enough social cachet in the broader process of public pressure on government institutions to make them change.
Clearly, the administration has decided that it now supports ROTC. This does not necessarily mean Stanford “supports” discrimination. The administration feels it would be more beneficial to have a military presence on campus, despite whatever discriminatory practices exist. Obviously, it would be better if ROTC did not discriminate at all. But perhaps the administration no longer wanted to use the Stanford name in a symbolic way as a pressure tactic for that policy change.
Ultimately, I think the second question – about tactics for policy change – is the more important one. We want to get rid of discrimination, right? Would keeping ROTC off campus have helped end whatever discriminatory practices it engages in? Hard to say. Either way, the Faculty Senate has voted, so other tactics for policy change will have to be used.
*I phrase these questions in the negative for no particular reason – you could instead ask something like “at what level of ‘good’ should you have to support an institution.”