Two Fundamental Questions the ROTC Debate Should Have Emphasized More

Posted by at 1:33AM

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.”


9 Responses to “Two Fundamental Questions the ROTC Debate Should Have Emphasized More”

  1. DL says:

    No, the university does not support discrimination. But they are okay with it and are willing to allow a minority to be discriminated against. In the past they have never cared about lawful discrimination, as Stanford’s policy has always been more liberal, yet now they’ve changed their mind: now they’re invoking the exceptions that the “lawful” part opens the policy up to. They’ve even subtly changed the wording to make sure we know that what Stanford is endorsing is lawful discrimination of trans people. It’s discrimination, yes, but it’s legal. That is the biggest BS ever–Stanford has never defaulted to what forms of discrimination are allowed by the law, and the law’s protected groups are always a subset of those that Stanford protects.

    So what’s the result of this? Stanford has set the precedent that it does not matter what groups its nondiscrimination policy protects. If the discrimination is lawful under federal or state law, it can and will exercise discrimination if it sees fit. Basically, Stanford’s policy is no longer a subset of the law’s; it is the law’s.

    At this point, it’s not even about ROTC. It’s how the campus went about the debate. When prop 8 was going to be voted on, the whole campus stood behind the LGBT community in solidarity; they even fought for the cause. But when it’s just trans people, a minority of a minority, they are okay with discrimination. That is the ultimate cowardice. Discrimination is NEVER okay, no matter how small the minority–especially when that minority was granted protected status in the nondiscrimination policy only 4 years ago! The majority, of the both student body and the faculty senate, showed their true colors in how they treat a minority on campus. I can guarantee you that this decision will be looked upon in shame in Stanford’s history–the first time Stanford chose not to enforce its nondiscrimination policy.

    Worst part is, this seems to be driving away prospective queer students. One profro I’ve been talking to, who was choosing between Stanford and Princeton, said, “So, pretty much Stanford doesn’t care about its queer community?” He pointed out to me–something I hadn’t realized–that Stanford’s precedent opens up the door to any kind of discrimination allowed by the law, no matter what Stanford’s policy protects. He was leaning toward Stanford, but the way that students were so dismissive of those fighting for trans rights really pissed him off. He’s chosen Princeton. I can’t blame him; this is a serious misstep for Stanford, and I’m also now wary of telling prospective students that Stanford really does have “safe and open spaces” — after all, given just how dismissive students have been, I think we’ve seen that at best they don’t care, and at worst have blanketed transphobic (even homophobic) feelings.

    I’m upset with how students are treating me. They just want me to shut up about it, as though this is just inconsequential. It isn’t. It’s not even about ROTC; it’s about the students just not caring and, further, being so abusive in their words. At this point, I can’t wait to get out of here and just be done with this university. I used to be possibly the most proud Stanford student; not anymore. I’m ashamed to affiliate myself with this school and worse, with my fellow students.

  2. DL says:


    “Basically, Stanford’s policy is no longer a *superset* of the law’s; it is the law’s.”

  3. Nit-Picky Law student says:


    Stanford has always lawfully discriminated in many areas of the University. The admissions process itself is lawfully discriminatory.

  4. Lucas says:

    First of all, I hope you didn’t take my post to be saying that I want anyone to shut up. My intention was to clarify a way the debate should have gone to encourage a more constructive conversation. Not to stifle it.

    And it sounds like you are making a case that discrimination is a big enough “bad” to outweigh any “good.” It’s a fair case to make about my first question, about how much “bad” to put up with when dealing with an institution. And believe me, sometimes I too want to take a really hard line on that question in the policy areas that I feel passionately about (energy policy and climate change), but that’s not always an effective position to take, as I mentioned in the post.

    Also, you’re not addressing the second, much more consequential question – that of ways to achieve policy change. Because I just don’t think your fellow students are as malevolent as you think, that so many are “against” LGBT rights. I think people want ROTC to be non-discriminatory against LGBT, they just don’t think that keeping it off the campus will help achieve that. I’ve even heard the argument that, in a sense, allowing ROTC back was a symbolic gesture of reward to the legislature for repealing DADT. It may not be everything we want, but it’s a big forward step. So now that the Faculty Senate has voted, what are other ways to pressure ROTC to change any discriminatory practices? I think you’d find support for other tactics.

  5. DL says:

    @Nit-Picky Law student – you’re right, admissions does technically discriminate based on race. Let’s not turn this into an affirmative action debate.


    For sure, I didn’t think you were telling anyone to shut up. While I object to your first claim, your post goes much further than most students in your willingness to discuss this issue. Other students just want trans rights supporters to shut up and not bother with any more dialogue.

    I don’t think that many really want trans people to be discriminated against (but some of the comments on the Daily a few months ago did indicate there were some students who likened being transgendered to thinking that you’re a plant). Almost no one wants that. Rather, my beef is that students and others are *okay* with it. (That is apathy at best, cowardice at worst.) I disagree that it’s not an effective stance to say that discrimination is not okay even given the benefits (here of ROTC). Stanford took exactly this stance for a very long time when DADT was in place, and refused to let ROTC back on those grounds. But now that it’s just trans people being discriminated against, Stanford thinks that it’s okay to allow the discrimination. It sets a nasty precedent that arbitrarily decides how large a minority needs to be before Stanford will enforce its nondiscrimination policy.

    I don’t see any way that allowing ROTC back will change any discriminatory policy. Did ROTC’s presence on Berkeley’s campus, which is extremely liberal and gay-friendly (with a gay and trans population many many many times the size of Stanford’s), help change DADT? It’s hard to say, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to prove that it did. It’s probably true that the legislature feels rewarded that we and others are bringing back ROTC after it passed DADT; and I feel that is a reward it does not deserve, because it lulls the legislature into believing that it’s done all it needs to do for now in civil rights. If we forced disallowed ROTC, it would be a symbolic way of showing they have more work to do, and I think that’s more effective, since now the entire queer rights movement in relation to the military has lots its steam; ROTC is back, LGB are included… but not T. And given how small a minority trans people are, it’s going to be a very, very, very long time to build that steam back up.

    Trans people hoped to get entrance to this “exclusive club” with LGB; but it’s like the leaders stopped trans people at the door and said, “Uh actually we’re only letting them in.” The gay rights movement has been raging for 40 years now, and despite that, DADT was actually enacted! And it took years for it to be repealed. Do you honestly think that trans people have even a hope for a change in policy anytime, now that we aren’t pressuring Congress to change its policy there?

    There were nearly 15,000 people discharged from the military for being queer under DADT (countless more before DADT). With ALL those people, nobody was able to change it. Is Stanford really arrogant enough to think that the small number of ROTC people it produces each year will be able to effect a change that thousands upon thousands couldn’t?

    Here’s the most scary thought. Who’s to say that the ROTC people that Stanford produces don’t endorse the discrimination against trans people? Lord knows there were quite a few people in the Daily comments who basically said it makes sense to discriminate against them, and that they should be discriminated against because they’re not mentally healthy. That is transphobia. And I fear that that is going to manifest in some of the students that graduate from the ROTC program at Stanford.

  6. Jordan says:

    “@Nit-Picky Law student – you’re right, admissions does technically discriminate based on race. Let’s not turn this into an affirmative action debate.”

    Haha. Of course you are probably for discrimination when it’s against people you don’t care about.

    The reality is Stanford is a corporation and most of us are a bunch of suckers for buying into the b.s. liberal arts “we care and respect” students stage show. This is the same University that babies you with 5 premajor, academic, RTC, OTC, ORC, major, minor advisors and 40 different organizations to teach you how to get help for getting help on an assignment. You think they respect your articulated views on individual rights?

    Propped up by a government-subsidized loan industry most of us were too eager to buy into the prestige factory than to actually consider whether the University respects the views of its students and respects open non-closed-door dialogue.

    I dislike the dictatorial manner by which the University made this decision, but I have to admit that the joke is on every student. Most will only feel screwed when its their own butt on the line.

  7. Robin Thomas says:

    Hmm. Is that ProFro who decided to go to Princeton aware that Princeton has ROTC too?

    As well as Cornell, Dartmouth, UPenn, and now recently Harvard and Columbia. Surely not all these schools are transphobic?

  8. DL says:


    “Haha. Of course you are probably for discrimination when it’s against people you don’t care about.”

    I wasn’t saying whether I am for or against affirmative action, so please don’t make such assumptions. Rather, I didn’t want to turn this into a debate about AA when the topic of discussion is ROTC. So I’m not responding to your bait.

    @Robin Thomas

    “Is that ProFro who decided to go to Princeton aware that Princeton has ROTC too?”

    Yes, he is, but he was disgusted with how Stanford went about the whole issue (especially the rewording of the nondiscrimination policy).

  9. Nit-picky Law student says:

    Stanford didn’t reword the non-discrimination policy. Where did that rumor start?


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