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Mullen Talks DADT, ROTC at Columbia

Mullen Talks DADT, ROTC at Columbia

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Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke Sunday at the World Leaders Forum at Columbia University in New York City, where he said that repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy could bring "significant" improvements in the sometimes fractious relationship between the military and the nation's elite colleges over the schools' ban on the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).

The afternoon discussion, which focused heavily on the subjects of veterans' resources and policy toward Iran, inaugurated a series called "Conversations With the Country," described by Mullen as "an effort to connect with communities throughout the country."

During the question-and-answer session following initial remarks, a 1968 graduate garnered applause when he asked about the possibility of the campus reestablishing the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC), which was expelled in 1969 during protests over the Vietnam War. Students wishing to participate currently travel to other campuses in the area to train.

"Actually, we talked about this whole issue over lunch, and this is part of what I believe is a transformative moment, that there are opportunities out there now, that it might be time to do that," said Mullen. "I think representation, in particular, universities in the Northeast, would be of great benefit to the universities as well as the military as well as the country."

Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, who spoke onstage with Mullen, said the existence of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy remains the "principal problem" that must be fixed in order to rebuild some Ivy League schools' fractured relationship with the military.

"I think the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy is the crucial, really been a critical divide, and it's been going on since the late 1980s, even before that, and the debate became much more difficult over the past five to 10 years," he said. "With this new direction, I think there are enormous opportunities, not only with respect to ROTC but to other things as well."

In comments to reporters afterward, Adm. Mullen agreed that lifting the "don't ask, don't tell" policy could repair a centuries-old relationship between the military and campuses that turned sour with the Vietnam War.

"I think there's great potential there," he said. "Again, I don't want to lead this in terms of change. It's a legislative responsibility, it's not mine, but I think the upside potential in that regard is pretty significant."

Although calls to lift the ROTC ban have grown louder in recent years, the officer-commissioning program remains formally unwelcome at institutions including Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Brown, and Stanford, with schools citing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy that runs afoul of their nondiscrimination codes. The related subject of on-campus military recruitment has engulfed conversations about Solicitor General Elena Kagan, a leading Supreme Court contender who, while dean of Harvard Law School in 2005, signed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold an appellate ruling allowing law schools to limit military recruiters' access to campus. The high court overturned the ruling.

Also during the forum Sunday, when an Air Force ROTC member asked how the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" could make the military more effective, Mullen reiterated his historic statements before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February.

"I've spoken very specifically about that in my testimony," he said. "Fundamentally, I believe that we are asking young men and women to come in and essentially lie. It's counter to our values as a military. It's counter to what I've valued my whole life in the military, and from that perspective, that's why I personally believe, it is a belief, that it's time to change. I said in that testimony, I repeat here, I served with those that I thought were gay my whole life. My first ship in 1968 up until right now, and they were, quite frankly, thought to be gay or lesbian by a lot of people. Never saw any debilitating impact that I could put my finger on from that standpoint."

Mullen then repeated his support for the Pentagon study due by December 1.

"It is really important, however, to work through this process of review over the course of this year, to understand, should the law change, the impact of that change," he said. "Part of my responsibility is to lead in a time of change, and to lead that change. In order to do that, and do it in a way that preserves the unit integrity, cohesion, readiness, all of those things which, military effectiveness, all of which are at the top of the list, that's something I need to understand, and I'll know a lot more about that as we get through this review toward the end of the year, and what it will take to lead should that law change."
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