The seventy-five men and women in blue and black uniforms trace the perimeter of the basketball court in Payne Whitney Gymnasium with crisp, synchronized movements. As the students march, the patriotic chords of “Anchors Aweigh,” “Off We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder,” and the “Marine’s Hymn”—the traditional songs of the United States Navy, Air Force, and Marines—resonate across the gym.
Row by row, the cadets and midshipmen of Yale’s Air Force and Naval Reserve Officer’s Training Corps battalions salute Yale President Peter Salovey, the presiding officer for this review late last spring. Wearing a plain black blazer in the middle of a row of decorated military uniforms, Salovey cuts a conspicuous figure. At one point in Yale’s history, the President’s Review was an annual event, but today marks the first time in over four decades that Yale’s president has presided over a public event honoring students who have committed to serving in the United States armed forces.
“This is a historic day for the University and for ROTC,” Salovey declares. “The spirit of sacrifice that links these military men and women is a hallmark of the spirit of Yale itself.”
“Bright College Years,” Yale’s unofficial alma mater, famously concludes with the line, “For God, for Country, and for Yale.” The middle prepositional phrase harkens to a certain noblesse oblige that once compelled thousands of Yale men to serve in the United States military.
Relics of this ethos are ubiquitous on campus. Every day, students walking through Woolsey Rotunda pass the names of hundreds who died serving their country. The whale-shaped Ingalls Hockey rink bears the name of the U.S. Navy’s only ace pilot (a pilot who has shot down five enemy aircrafts) during the First World War. The alumni rosters of Yale College include the class of 1945-War (’45W)—a designation for students who completed their undergraduate degrees in thirty-one months to ship off more quickly to the frontlines of World War II.
Yale became home to one of the country’s six original Naval ROTC units in 1916. According to a 1917 issue of the Yale Alumni Weekly, approximately 9,500 Yale students and alumni fought in the First World War. During World War II, so many students left to join the military that Yale could fill only three residential colleges, mostly with men deemed medically unfit for service. The University rented the other seven colleges and Old Campus to the U.S. Military for training purposes. In total, 18,678 Yale students and alumni served in Word War II—an almost incomprehensible statistic today, at a time when few Yale students volunteer to serve and the draft is no longer in effect.
At Yale and across the country, disillusionment with the armed forces set in as the death toll rose in Vietnam. In 1970, while the campus roiled with anti-war protests, the University severed ties with its strongest institutional attachment to the armed forces: the ROTC program. The military’s presence on Yale’s campus virtually disappeared, and animosity continued for years. In 2005, for example, Yale Law School banned military recruiters from their annual career fair to protest “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—the policy barring homosexuals from serving openly in the military. The two institutions ultimately spent almost two years settling the issue in the court system. Ultimately, in 2007, an appeals court forced the Law School to choose between allowing military recruiters and forfeiting approximately $300 million in federal funding, so the recruiters returned to campus.
In the last five years, however reengagement has occurred voluntarily and on multiple levels, both official and unofficial. The military has become a significant presence at Yale once more. In 2012, after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the ROTC returned to Yale and soon turned into one of the largest and fastest-growing student military programs in New England. Other changes include the hiring of high-profile personnel, such as retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, and the uniting of Yale veterans in the Yale Veteran’s Association (YVA). In April, the YVA—which sought to connect the roughly 10,000 Yale veterans across the country—hosted the Ivy League’s first Veteran’s Summit.
“Up until five-and-a-half years ago, there was nothing for the military here. It all dissolved in 1970… but things have changed dramatically,” explained YVA co-founder and chairman Army Captain Frederick Nagle ’66.
Gallup’s annual institutional confidence survey reports that the military is now the most trusted institution in the United States. It handily beats out the church, the medical system, the Supreme Court and the presidency. But the topic of the YVA summit—the civilian-military divide—suggests that rebuilding a relationship within the academe may not be easy. The bridge the University has chosen is an élite one, with illustrious faculty, officer-track students, and only a handful of veterans to inform classroom debates with first-hand experience. For the modern liberal arts university, the frontlines still seem far away.
“I think there’s a little bit of responsibility for me and other veterans to bring the perspective of combat to the table and to help enlighten undergrads and grads and faculty members as to what the reality on the ground is like,” said Chris Harnisch, a master’s student at the School of Management and the President of the Yale Student Veteran’s council.
Students like him are facing a large swath of the Yale population that has set foot on campus without ever having met a member of the U.S. armed forces, even though the country has been at war for the majority of their lifetimes. Though they enroll in seminars to discuss military policy and war in the abstract, few end up in the less than one percent of the American population currently enlisted. Fostering a spirit of trust toward the military on Yale’s liberal campus falls to the burgeoning population of military-affiliated individuals who, with lingering uncertainty as to their place, march across the campus.
The uniform of an ROTC cadet or midshipman is designed to be conspicuous: shiny shoes, crisply ironed slacks, hats with gold roping for the midshipmen, and narrow flight caps for the cadets. When ROTC students walk around campus, their uniforms are a physical reminder of their “ambassadorial role,” believes Captain Vernon Kemper, the commanding officer of Yale’s Naval ROTC program.
“Freshman year I tried to smile a lot when I was in uniform because I was worried there was this perception that military people weren’t friendly,” said midshipman Josh Clapper ’16.
The day after the official repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010, Yale President Richard Levin called Defense Secretary Robert Gates to inform him that Yale was interested in bringing ROTC back to campus. The wheels moved quickly. By summer 2011, the faculty had officially discarded the regulations that prevented ROTC’s return. Many attribute the relatively smooth reintegration of ROTC to strong administrative backing, particularly from former President Levin, former University Vice President Linda Lorimer, and former Yale College Dean Mary Miller. Though the voting records are not publicly available, history professor John Gaddis estimates that the decision to bring back ROTC passed with the approval of seventy percent of the faculty.
Though ROTC had only four participants in the fall of 2012, there are now seventy-five students in the program, and both the Air Force and Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps commanding officers estimate that the programs will continue to grow in the next several years to enroll over a hundred students.
Most of these students are supported by the national ROTC program, which offers merit-based scholarships to promising students at civilian universities in exchange for a commitment of military service after graduation. To maintain their scholarship, Yale ROTC students must engage in weekly physical training and complete a core military curriculum of eight classes, in addition to the thirty-six credits required of all Yale students.
The University now faces the question of how a historical tie must stretch to fit today’s Yale. On the wall of the NROTC wardroom in 55 Whitney, there is a large photograph of ROTC midshipmen conducting rifle drills on Old Campus during World War II. Unlike its predecessors, today’s ROTC program keeps the most blatant reminders of combat outside of the ivory tower. “You would never see that today,” midshipman Sam Cohen told me. “We don’t drill with rifles anywhere on campus.”
The program explicitly avoids cloistering its participants from the Yale community at large. Colonel Phil Haun, the commanding officer of Yale’s Air Force ROTC program, acknowledges that the ROTC is time-consuming, but not prohibitively so. ROTC has a “pretty light footprint,” allowing cadets and midshipmen to participate in varsity athletics teams, a cappella groups, improvisational comedy troops, and student government. Last year’s Yale College Council President, Michael Herbert, is a NROTC midshipman.
“If you are in physically good shape, you can get a good haircut, and you know the three basic responses, you would do just fine,” Clapper said.
ROTC’s growing presence on campus has stoked little public controversy, though a few students and faculty have criticized Yale for embracing an institution with a conservative stance on social issues. In an op-ed for the Yale Daily News in October 2013, columnist Scott Stern ’15 criticized Yale for embracing the military despite its policies on transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals.
“The University’s non-discrimination policy should be enforced equally for everyone,” he wrote. “Unless ROTC ends its discrimination, Yale cannot allow the program to remain on campus.”
The administration has been quick to defend ROTC against these charges, stating that the program does not discriminate against any students or condone discriminatory policies. There are multiple openly gay participants in Yale’s ROTC program, and the program’s gender divide is far more equitable than the military itself—eight out of seventeen of the Class of 2018 Air Force ROTC cadets are women, although women still only make up 14.5 percent of the active duty force in the military.
In its return to campus, ROTC consciously adapted to its environment. Cadets and midshipmen only wear their uniforms once a week. Students fulfill their ambassadorial potential by being a part of the student body, not by standing apart from it.
Lukas Berg, a veteran and graduate student in the Jackson Institute, sees the return of the military to campus as just part of the larger process of Yale rediscovering this spirit of service that has existed since Yale’s founding. Berg cites the example of Nathan Hale—the famous Yale alumnus who was executed for spying on the British during the Revolutionary War.
“If you’d have asked him to scrub toilets for his country, he would have scrubbed toilets because, as he said, anything done in service of one’s country becomes noble in the execution,” Lukas said. “I think that’s part of Yale’s heritage.”
This heritage has not always been embraced. When military history professor Paul Kennedy arrived at Yale in the 1980s, he remembers a “distinctly anti-military culture.” Fueled by anti-Vietnam sentiments and concern about the military’s policies towards women and LGBTQ people, the majority of the student body and faculty saw the military as an institution that was fundamentally incompatible with Yale’s espoused liberal arts values.
But time has mitigated many of these concerns. “As I see it, there’s been a rebalancing of attitudes at Yale, and it’s found itself happening when you could say there’s also been a rebalancing of public opinion about the military,” Kennedy said.
This new tone has impacted the classroom dynamic, allowing for friendlier conversation, according to many of the military personnel interviewed for this article. Students and teachers alike are far more accepting of ROTC’s presence than in decades past. Still, Yale’s reputation since the 1970s as an anti-military school has caused some of the military recruits to approach with apprehension.
Lieutenant Colonel Charles Faint, for example, said, “I’m in the military, I’m from the South, I’m conservative, and I had no desire to go to what I perceived was going to be an anti-military, anti-Southern, gun-hating state and college where I’d just never lived before…I was envisioning fist fights with the hippies on the green.”
Faint came to Yale on the Army’s dime in 2011 to get a master’s degree in Global Affairs so that he could return to West Point to teach social studies. Though he was not initially interested in attending Yale, the presence of General McChrystal—whom he worked under in the Joint Special Operations Command—led him to reconsider. While the atmosphere was not as anti-military as he anticipated, he soon realized that misconceptions went both ways. “They assumed because I’m a white hetero Christian male from the South that I’d be anti-gay, that I’d have racial animosity…It really was a mutual growing process across the two years,” he said.
Despite the perception that Yale and the military make for strange bedfellows, most veterans I talked to said the transition from military life to the University was much smoother than they expected. Faint attributes this to the nature of academic debate. “We could have a knock-down drag-out fight in the classroom and we’d all be downtown drinking beers afterwards,” he said.
Professor Emma Sky, who teaches seminars on the Iraq War and Modern Middle Eastern politics, offered a similar rationale. “The classroom is a safe environment where people can get to know each other,” she explained. “It doesn’t matter if the person is a colonel or lieutenant colonel, in the classroom everybody is equal.” Though her courses are consistently oversubscribed, she preferentially admits former servicemen and women, because she thinks they introduce a valuable perspective about the conflict.
But these positive experiences may also reflect a certain degree of self-selection. Many veterans who come to Yale pursue fields in which military experience is valued, such as management, global affairs, or area studies. What may be true in these fields might not hold consistently across disciplines.
Adam Keller is a master’s student in the English department. He was in Afghanistan in 2012 when he received an email from his West Point English teacher, a Yale alumna, who encouraged him to get a graduate degree so that he could come back to West Point and teach. After three deployments, both Keller and his family were looking for a respite from the constant uncertainty of active duty, so he applied and was accepted to Yale’s English literature terminal master’s program. Unlike many other Yale veterans, Keller’s course of study is a less obvious fit with his military background. And unlike his peers, Keller says he encountered some hostility from his professors and classmates.
“I know that there were members of the faculty who didn’t agree with the fact that I am here,” he said. “[There’s] the idea that what I do for a living is not consistent with the types of values a humanities education is supposed to inculcate.”
Keller thinks some of the opposition is a manifestation of academic insularity—he is the only one of his cohort not pursuing a long-term career in traditional English academia—but he thinks the primary bent of the animosity is ideological.
“Yale College still feels more foreign than Afghanistan,” he said.
If you saw Ben Shaver in Booktrader Café, with his mop of untidy curls and oversized tortoiseshell glasses, you probably wouldn’t guess that he’s a former Marine— he looks like he belongs in Brooklyn, not Baghdad. Shaver enlisted in the Marines in 2005, immediately after high school. After almost five years working in linguistics and intelligence in Iraq, he returned stateside to get a college degree. He spent two years at Deep Springs—a two-year, alternative college in California—and then transferred into Yale’s Eli Whitney program for non-traditional students. Shaver thinks that Yale’s rejuvenated discourse with the military is not as comprehensive as it purports to be, because it includes few of the largely working-class people who put their bodies on the line to carry out American foreign policy.
The overwhelming majority of servicemen and women on Yale’s campus today are or were members of the officer corps, and ROTC graduates follow the same path. The officer corps accounts for only 16.4 percent of the United States military. Enlisted soldiers comprise the other 83.6 percent of the United States military, and only 5.9 percent of them have a Bachelor’s degree or higher.
“To speak of a veteran community at Yale within the undergrad population—it just doesn’t exist,” Shaver said. “There are people in the grad schools, but they’re not at all representative of the military…They’re the élite within the command of the military, and they’re careerist. Their perspective is different—they’ve bought in.”
There are currently over one million American college students paying their tuition with GI Bill benefits, but you won’t find many of these veterans at élite institutions. According to the New York Times, in the 2013-2014 academic year, Brown University housed only eleven undergraduate veterans of the American armed services; Harvard, four; and Princeton, one. Though Yale will not release the number of veterans in the undergraduate community, those I talked to were confident that you could count the number on one hand.
Why aren’t there more enlisted veterans at Yale? Part of the answer may lie in demographics. More than sixty percent of student veterans are first-generation college students, compared to roughly twelve percent of Yale students. According to the most recently available Department of Defense statistics, in 2007, 42.97 percent of enlisted military recruits came from the Southeast and 12.81 percent from the Northeast. In comparison, fifteen percent of Yale’s class of 2018 is from the Southeast, up to forty-one percent from the Northeast. The geographic regions from which Yale and the military draw are almost exact inverses of each other.
“There is the germination of the idea of service” -Stanley McChrystal, retired U.S. Army general
Shaver thinks his admission to Yale doesn’t necessarily reflect what the reality for most enlisted veterans. “It’s about class dynamics. A big part of the military going to college afterwards, these are people who probably wouldn’t have gone to college otherwise. That’s not really my experience…For me it was more like I was resuming what would have been my life trajectory outside of the military,” he explained.
Though Yale has made some effort to recruit such veterans, for instance, by mailing admissions brochures to the honors societies of community colleges and by sending a recruiter to the local Marine base, these measures have not amounted to much so far.
“It’s easy for Harvard or Yale to get complacent or content that they have plenty of vets on campus just because they have former officers at the business school, and nobody really talks about the fact that the top schools are doing a not so great job of going out and finding the enlisted veterans,” said Jesse Reising. As a Yale undergraduate, Reising was set to enter the Marine Corps upon graduation, but a debilitating football injury during his senior year Harvard–Yale Game rendered him medically ineligible. Because he could not serve, Reising wanted to find another way to engage with the military.
He co-founded the Warrior-Scholar Project, now a nationwide academic boot camp designed to ease the transition of enlisted veterans to civilian universities. As part of the Warrior-Scholar Project, veterans sleep in Saybrook College dorm rooms, attend classes taught by notable Yale professors, and participate in panels run by the Yale Admissions Office on the college application process. Reising thinks that Yale and other élite universities can do better. “If someone told [veterans] it was possible to go to a top school, they could do it. They just need to be told they can,” he stated.
Earlier last semester, I spent a chilly February afternoon walking around campus with a group of West Point cadets. One of the cadets on the walk was sporting a black eye and a set of electric blue stitches from an injury sustained during training; another was wearing large, black medical sunglasses because he had recently undergone Lasik eye surgery (20/40 uncorrected vision is required to apply to be a military pilot). The cadets’ commanding officer was a wiry man in an olive green beret who walked with a pronounced limp—the remnant of an old battlefield injury.
Walking around campus with these men in uniform, I could feel the curious eyes that followed us. One friend jokingly asked what I had done to merit such an escort. At the gates of Old Campus, another group of students came up to ask if the cadets were part of the security retinue of some famous person visiting campus. Neither of these interactions was hostile, but the sight of a large group of people in uniform certainly did not go unnoticed.
Had this been 1946, the cadets could have been marching in formation with rifles and nobody would have batted an eye. Had this been 1970, the cadets would have been targeted by vitriolic protesters. But in 2015, the West Point cadets were simply here visiting General McChrystal’s leadership course.
An explosive Rolling Stone article spurred McChrystal’s resignation as the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, but the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs invited him to teach at Yale in the wake of the political controversy. McChrystal is indicative of the University’s embrace of high-profile military personnel. He is now in his fifth year at Yale, and he looks at home in his third-floor Hillhouse office.
When I ask him what role he thinks the military recruits play on Yale’s campus today, he answers immediately. “I think they are harbinger of a new future at Yale University. I think there’s a different mindset growing,” he says. “It’s going to take a while, but I think there is the germination of the idea of service.”
This shared commitment to public service has provided the rhetorical common ground for Yale and the military. “It’s a desire to serve, this is what characterizes this University,” Salovey declared at the ROTC President’s Review. “Within these walls you can hear the echoes of history—a love of country, dedication, humility, and humanity—echoes that ring out loud all around us today.” But, in practice, few Yale students enter public sector jobs after graduation. Last year, the Office of Career Services survey reported that the five largest employers of the class of 2014 were Goldman Sachs, McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company, Microsoft, Boston Consulting Group, and Yale University itself.
Every military affiliate I interviewed was quick to say that the military is not the path most Yale students will—or should—choose. Still, “the idea of service should be something that is implied for Yale students,” McChrystal said. Neither the ROTC members nor the veterans nor the military faculty want to turn back the clock to days when students drilled on Old Campus. But they are charged with bridging the gap between two powerhouse institutions, amidst a student body that is more ambivalent about and distanced from the path of service they have chosen to take. The people in uniform on campus today are only a small section of campus—a far cry from the military’s large historical footprint—but, at the very least they have started a cordial dialogue between those who serve and those who probably never will.