SEVERAL DOZEN <b>NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY</b> (Mass.) undergraduates have gathered before dawn at the Marino Recreation Center for much more than recreation. They run through their calisthenics and rapid-fire sit-ups and push-ups as partners shout encouragement and check stopwatches. Others circle the track one story above the gym floor or duck incoming missiles during a high-powered dodgeball game.
These students-clad in standard issue black shorts and gray Army T-shirts-belong to Liberty Battalion, Northeastern's chapter of the Army's Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Within 18 months of graduating they may well find themselves in a war zone.
The group is evidence of the post-9/11 growth of officer training programs at schools nationwide, almost 40 years after ROTC became a four-letter word to many Vietnam War protesters on college campuses. Back in those days, Northeastern counted about 2,800 ROTC cadets, one of the largest contingents outside of the U.S. military academies. "It was a way to stay in college and not go to war," explains Lt. Col. John McClellan, a professor of military science. He now commands 120 cadets headed to the leaner, all-volunteer Army as second lieutenants.
Besides their three-times-a-week, one-and-a-half-hour physical training classes, and their regular academic courseloads, today's Northeastern cadets follow a four-year sequence of military science courses-from an introduction to the Army, to land navigation and military tactics, to leadership and ethical decision making.
When they graduate and receive their commissions, many will spend four years on active duty and another four on a list from which they can be recalled. The rest will opt for six years of National Guard service and two years on the recall list.
Nationwide, more than 28,000 students (6,000 of them women) are enrolled in Army ROTC at 273 host institutions, either attending those schools or commuting from almost 1,100 other colleges for military training and coursework. (The Air Force ROTC and the Navy ROTC-which includes future Marines-have nearly 12,000 and 6,000 participants, respectively.) Because many are on military scholarships, the cost to their schools is often minimal.
While the numbers scarcely approach the 177,000 all-male Army ROTC cadets at the height of the Vietnam War (when the program was the primary alternative to the military draft) and the more than 60,000 just two decades ago (when the Cold War was still a concern), today's ROTC is alive and well, say its proponents. It supplies more than 60 percent of the Army's officer corps and 52 percent of its generals.
In fact, the number of ROTC grads over the past decade has swelled from 3,600 annually to nearly 4,100 last year, en route to the Army's goal of 4,500. "Our mission is growing," observes Lt. Col. Norman Gauthier, who runs ROTC at <b>Worcester Polytechnic Institute</b> (Mass.). Gauthier is aiming to increase by half the 60 cadets enrolled from WPI and 16 surrounding colleges. "Last year I had a senior who commuted 45 miles, five days a week, for military science classes and physical training at 6 a.m.," he points out.
Northeastern's McClellan, meanwhile, is working to reestablish ROTC at Boston neighbors <b>Emmanuel College</b> and <b>Roxbury Community College</b> and to add them to the network of satellite schools his program serves. At <b>Purdue University</b> (Ind.), the number of Air Force cadets has almost doubled over the past decade to its current level of 200.
Those involved with ROTC agree that 9/11 catalyzed the recent growth of their programs. "People felt the need to serve and defend the country," says Northeastern's president, Joseph Aoun.
The numbers back him up. In the academic year following 9/11, ROTC enrollment jumped more than 5 percent for the Army and nearly 7 percent for the Navy. The Air Force ROTC recorded its largest numbers in a decade, and Purdue, which has one of the largest Air Force programs in the country, saw almost a 40 percent surge in participation from pre-9/11 levels.
Lt. Col. Elizabeth Cisne, who leads ROTC at the <b>University of Nebraska-Lincoln</b>, still finds 9/11 references in student applications. "Most of them will indicate that the events of that day were a wake-up call," she says.
In the past several years, ROTC numbers have subsided for all three military branches-although they remain above pre-9/11 levels at many schools-as the patriotic rush to join has given way to a more sober assessment of the ongoing war in Iraq. The concerns have hit home for Nebraska's cadets, who have seen two recent graduates die in the war. "It certainly makes them more serious about what they are doing," notes Cisne.
"There are concerns in the minds of students and parents about joining the military in this day and age," adds Northeastern's McClellan, who regularly fields questions such as, "What's it really like in Iraq?" and "How soon will my son or daughter be deployed?"
The answer to the latter question: from a few months to one-and-a-half years after graduation. Cisne aims to reassure first-year ROTC candidates, however, that "with a four-year lead time, the world situation may change."
At WPI, Gauthier stresses that not every Army cadet is "knocking down doors and looking for insurgents. We have doctors, lawyers, satellite communications experts, and engineers," he says, adding that these future officers can complete their professional studies before shipping out.
In some cases, cadets can even defer their military service until they've completed advanced degrees. "I have a <b>Holy Cross</b> junior who says, 'I'm thinking of becoming a priest.' He would come back as a chaplain," Gauthier says. "It's the same thing with lawyers and doctors. I'll support that. But I'll make sure I have their forwarding addresses."
If the events of 9/11 have spoken loudly to prospective cadets, so have the prospects of full scholarships in an age of very expensive education. Two years ago, the Army removed the $20,000 ceiling on its scholarships in favor of full tuition for ROTC cadets. The grants are awarded competitively to almost 13,000 students nationwide.
"What's drawing a lot of them-and I have no qualms with this-is that it's a way to pay for college. When we give a four-year scholarship to Holy Cross or WPI-with the schools throwing in room and board-they're getting a good chunk of change," says Gauthier, who estimates that the financial package can reach $200,000.
"I'm paying for the education of most of my cadets, about $175,000 at this particular school. But I don't think that's what plants the seed," says Northeastern's McClellan.
"Often it's the benefits that attract you, but after you realize the value of service, your sense of doing something bigger than yourself kicks in," agrees Nebraska's Cisne.
Northeastern freshman Dan McSweeney, who considered applying to <b>West Point</b> at first, considers himself a case in point. "It certainly helps [that] I'm going to get tuition over my college career, followed by an expenses-paid job," he says, "But I always tell people that this is something I might have done anyway."
While the Air Force provides full scholarships to only 5 percent of its cadets and caps tuition contributions for the next 20 percent at $15,000 annually, this has not stopped undergraduates from joining Purdue's Air Force ROTC, notes commanding officer Col. Michael Silver. "We offer more bells and whistles," says Silver, a former F-16 fighter pilot, citing the allure of military jets and space satellites. "We attract students who want to mess with those things."
It also helps that career pathways available in the Air Force match up with Purdue's aviation, aerospace, and engineering strengths. "We tend to get very fine students because many want to study the disciplines connected with the ROTC program," says Thomas Robinson, who oversees ROTC for all military branches as Purdue's vice president of student affairs.
For those like McSweeney who are already committed to or leaning toward military service, the longstanding combination of academic and military subjects is an additional draw. "I like the balance of school and ROTC because I'll be living the Army when I graduate," adds Nadine Deery, who gets in her practice on the M-16 rifle, M-249 machine gun, and M-203 grenade launcher during weekend and summer field training trips.
Today's ROTC also has benefited from attitudes on campus that are a far cry from the widespread disapproval, demonstrations, and sit-ins of the 1960s. "In the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Desert Storm in 1991, the public started to see soldiers in a different way and separated them from political aims," says McClellan.
Cisne notes that her newly minted officers are recognized at Nebraska's graduation ceremonies and usually receive standing ovations. "The community has been supportive too," adds Silver of the ROTC experience for Purdue's cadets. "If they wear their uniforms, they'll get benefits like half-price in some local restaurants."
"Over time the pendulum has swung back and forth," observes Purdue's Robinson. "Students now represent a more conservative point of view, and they're very much committed to their country. It's an interesting phenomenon."
sober assessment of the ongoing war in Iraq.
Still, Northeastern Army cadets Deery and McSweeney face a community not completely used to a military presence. "When I first entered, everyone was kind of shocked," recalls Deery. McSweeney says of the one day per week that uniforms are required, "When I walk by in uniform on Thursday, some older people come up to shake my hand and say, 'Thank you,' but I get looks from others as if they hadn't seen a uniform before."
Gauthier at WPI says that gaining acceptance took some doing. He recalls having to change people's minds when he ran ROTC at other universities during the early 1990s. "They had a false impression of what we do, that we're mainly Army recruiters and warmongers," Gauthier says.
Laura Miller, a military sociologist for the RAND Corporation, encountered similar views during those years while an assistant professor at <b>UCLA.</b> "There were a lot of lingering stereotypes that ROTC students were robots who would do what they were told. At the very least, there was a wariness towards them," she recalls.
She has made the case for ROTC programs on college campuses, in her classes at UCLA and now through speaking engagements and writings. "With ROTC you're having the intermingling of future officers with future business leaders and other professionals in society. If you're kicking ROTC programs off campus, you're going to have a less diverse group of officers."
"The charge was, by inviting more ROTC programs on campus, you were militarizing colleges," says McClellan. "But why wouldn't you have the effect of liberalizing the military? That's why we're at [about] 270 schools and not just at a military academy on the banks of the Hudson River."
That's not to say opposition to ROTC on campus has disappeared. During the mid-1990s that opposition extended to the newly established "Don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays in the military. A new round of protest erupted in 1998 when Congress passed the Solomon Act-requiring any educational institution receiving federal funds to allow military recruiters on campus. In response, a number of law schools sued the government on the grounds that "Don't ask, don't tell" was a discriminatory practice at odds with their own nondiscrimination policies concerning gays.
Northeastern president Joseph Aoun agrees with the Solomon law. "In higher education we receive a lot of funds from the U.S. Department of Defense. In many ways we have to be absolutely consistent with ourselves," he contends. "We can't say, 'Let's take the money for research and not welcome ROTC on campus.'"
A number of schools large enough to serve as host institutions-including <b>Harvard</b> and <b>Columbia</b>-have not allowed ROTC to return to campus since their faculty groups expelled the organization during the Vietnam War (although their students can attend ROTC classes elsewhere). An attempt to reinstate ROTC at Columbia was voted down in 2005 by the university senate.
In recent years, students from <b>Marquette University</b> in Milwaukee to the <b>University of California, Berkeley</b> have mounted protests against the ROTC programs on their campuses.
The decline in host institutions from more than 400 over the past decades, though, has occurred mainly because of military cutbacks. "From the Army perspective, we had to take a hard look," explains Army ROTC spokesman Paul Kotakis. "We have finite resources, including the staff that we can assign."
As ROTC programs have shifted from northern urban areas to the South and Midwest, ROTC schools have dwindled to two in New York, one each in Miami and Chicago, and none in Detroit.
For those schools that still serve as ROTC hosts, the level of institutional support runs the gamut from providing classrooms, office space, and gym facilities to granting varying amounts of academic credit. While some do not include ROTC course credits on their transcript, Northeastern has just increased allowable ROTC credit hours to 12, which lightens the burden on cadets who must take 28 military credit hours during their college career in addition to their normal course loads to receive their commissions.
At many schools, the commanding officers of ROTC programs enjoy the status of department heads and attend meetings with university officials. Northeastern's Aoun points to less tangible ways that he and other school presidents have underwritten ROTC programs, from attending ROTC ceremonies to including cadets in other campus celebrations. "When people see that the administration is welcoming (ROTC cadets) and not putting them in a silo, that's the most important kind of support," Aoun insists.
Purdue's Robinson says that host ROTC schools get a good return on their investment and notes that his school receives more than $5.8 million a year in Army, Navy, and Air Force scholarships. "There's a lot of money in the pipeline to bring first-rate students here," he reasons.
Col. Mike Silver adds that his Air Force cadets maintain higher academic averages than the general student body, regularly perform community service, and live by stricter standards of conduct. "There are more rules," he explains, adding that, for example, "If you drink underage, we'll kick you out."
Army spokesman Kotakis sees another positive dimension. "We offer arguably the best leadership course in America. We've been in business since 1916 and have commissioned more than 500,000 officers." At WPI, Gauthier adds that he has taken that idea farther afield. "Even the business classes here are teaching leadership," he says. "And we're getting involved."
<em>Ron Schachter is a Boston-based freelance writer.</em>