NROTC class in front of Cousens Gym, circa 1946. Image from Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University.

Seventy years ago the world was at war. Europe was in turmoil and the United States was pulling back on its policy of neutrality. In September 1941, mere months before the attack on Pearl Harbor which officially brought the United States into the war, then Tufts President Leonard Carmichael partnered with the U.S. Navy to start the first ROTC program at Tufts. In its first year, the program enrolled over one hundred freshman and by 1946, over 2,000 men had completed the training on Tufts campus.

A lot has changed since then. In 1969, as Vietnam protests raged around the nation, Tufts faculty voted to ban ROTC from campus. They wouldn’t take another vote on the subject until 2011 when current faculty members, some of whom had protested the war as college students 40 years earlier, voted to recognize ROTC on student transcripts.

Today, Tufts students can enroll in ROTC programs linked to the Army, Air Force or Navy.  The 21 Jumbos currently in ROTC – 11 serving in the Army, 6 in the Air Force and 4 in the Navy – join others from Harvard, Wellesley, Gordon College, Salem State and Endicott to train at MIT.

Founded in part with public funds as a land-grant college, MIT has been legally required to teach military skills since it opened in 1865. One of the few area colleges that maintained an ROTC program throughout the Vietnam War, MIT ROTC signed cross-enrollment agreements with Tufts, Harvard and Wellesley during the 1970s.

Life as an ROTC student

Patrick Cassidy, E12, with Edmund E. Johnson, Jr, A51, AG55 and Nicholas Falk, A12 at Tufts 2011 Veterans’ Day ceremony.

Patrick Cassidy, E12, has participated in Naval ROTC since coming to Tufts.

“I was always interested in military service,” he said.  “I have no family in the armed services, but after the attack of September 11, 2001 and with the current military conflicts the U.S. is involved in, serving my country in this way was important to me.”

Cassidy said his commitment to service is part of what attracted him to Tufts, the school his brother Max Cassidy, A09, also attended.

“When I was in high school, I was looking for a college where I could study engineering, participate in ROTC and play football,” Cassidy said.  “Tufts has all those things, but what really attracted me to Tufts was its commitment to active citizenship.”

Cassidy added that the financial incentives offered by the Navy were initially a compelling factor in his choice to become an ROTC midshipman.

New ROTC recruits receive a full, four year scholarship to the college they’re attending. At the end of their first year, students can drop out of the program with no penalty. Those who stay are asked to make an eight year commitment – including active service followed by time in the reserves.  Anyone who does not follow through on that commitment must pay back their scholarship money.

“As a high school student I knew that participation in ROTC meant that I could go to any college of my choice and it was empowering to have that kind of flexibility,” Cassidy said. “By the end of my first year of ROTC, when I went to make a final commitment to the program, I was so sure it was the right choice for me that I would have continued in the program even if it meant not having a scholarship.”

Cassidy added that in his experience the financial aspect played a minor role in people’s decision to join or continue with ROTC.

“The people I’ve met in ROTC have been motivated by public service,” Cassidy said. “It doesn’t matter how they got here.  ROTC is a fantastic opportunity which most people don’t regret.”

Cassidy, who travels to MIT for ROTC training anywhere between 3-7 times a week, said the program is rigorous but rewarding.

“ROTC prepares students to be public servants,” Cassidy said. “Military service is public service.  It’s about keeping this country safe and about participating in humanitarian missions around the world.”

In addition to the academic year training at MIT, Cassidy and his ROTC peers participate in more in-depth training sessions over the summer. These sessions go from wide to narrow over a student’s time in the program, helping students learn broadly about the work of their branch of the armed services and then learn in depth about specific aspects of it.

“The first summer I just got a feel for everything the Navy does,” Cassidy explained.  “I traveled to different bases and saw different elements of the Navy’s work.  That experience helped me identify submarines as a particular interest, and the following summer I traveled to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and spent 10 days as a crew member on a sub.”

This past summer, Cassidy took a different approach – serving on a surface ship.

“I felt pretty sure that serving on a submarine was the right fit for me, but it was nice to have the opportunity to serve on a surface ship so I could really understand the options,” Cassidy said.

In May, the mechanical engineering major will be commissioned as an ensign, the lowest rank of officer, in the Naval Nuclear Propulsion program. The nuclear power which drives these submarines means they can go on long missions without needing to refuel, but also makes this assignment one of the most technically challenging programs in the military.

Like all prospects to the program, Cassidy had to interview with the program’s director, four-star admiral Admiral Kirkland H. Donald, before being accepted. After graduating, he’ll spend another 18 months training for this specific assignment before becoming a division officer, running a division of 15 to 20 sailors on a nuclear submarine.

“The Naval Nuclear Propulsion program is a perfect fit with my engineering background,” Cassidy said.  “It’s been great to be able to simultaneously participate in ROTC while studying engineering.”

On top of his rigorous academic education and ROTC training, Cassidy has also been a dedicated member of on the Tufts football team.

“My life at Tufts has been made up of three parts – my education, ROTC and football.  Balancing those three things has been difficult, but I was always able to make it work,” Cassidy said.  “While I’ve been strongly committed to my education and to ROTC, football has been my outlet to have some fun.”

Cassidy added that Coach Jay Civetti and his football teammates, including Army ROTC cadet Nicholas Falk, A12, have all been very supportive of his commitment to ROTC.

For example, after Cassidy and his roommate, Army ROTC cadet Matthew Milley, A12, were selected to lead this year’s Veteran’s Day ceremony, Coach Civetti organized the football team to show up in support of their teammates.

Overall, the feeling on campus towards ROTC is very positive, Cassidy said.

“I’ve had nothing but good experiences,” Cassidy said. “On November 11, other students greeted me with smiles and wished me a happy Veterans’ Day. I’m sure there are students who don’t support the military or ROTC, but everyone’s always been very polite to me.”

Beyond the campus, Tufts ROTC cadets have a reputation for outstanding leadership. While the 21 Jumbos in ROTC train with other area students, both the Air Force and the Navy are headed by cadets from Tufts.

Brittany Trimble, A12, serves as wing commander for the 30 cadets participating in Air Force ROTC while Cassidy serves as battalion commander for the 40 midshipmen in Navy ROTC. In these roles, Trimble and Cassidy are leaders for the other students and take on responsibilities including overseeing training, motivating their peers and planning weekly events.

Developing Civic Leaders

Dean Glaser participating in an ROTC-like training at Fort Knox.

James M. Glaser, Dean of Academic Affairs for the School of Arts and Sciences, serves as the faculty liaison to ROTC. With no military experience of his own, Dean Glaser has grown a deep appreciation of the armed services through this role.

“As an educator, I’ve found ROTC’s leadership training to be impressive,” Dean Glaser said.  “The program is developmental – providing conscious feedback and constructive advice in a purposeful, methodical way. Obviously, the military is a very different environment from a university, so we shouldn’t duplicate the way ROTC does everything, but I strongly believe there’s a lot we can learn from their approach.”

Last year, Glaser traveled to Fort Knox to get a taste of what ROTC is all about by participating in a bootcamp-style training session designed for academic leaders working with ROTC students. He shared his reflections on the experience in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“ROTC provides a real benefit to our students and I’ve seen firsthand the positive impact participation in ROTC has,” Glaser said. “Through a program of discipline, rigor and an emphasis on knowledge, ROTC builds self-worth, confidence and a commitment to public service.”

Glaser added that there is no doubt in his mind that military service is public service.

“Our military personnel give their time, put themselves on the line and sacrifice for a greater cause,” he said. “I admire the people who want to serve in the military – who are doing something greater than themselves based on their principals.”

In an academic environment every academic decision is approached with rigor, and this spring’s discussion about recognizing ROTC on student transcripts was no different.

Several prestigious internships and awards had already set a precedent for non-credit bearing activities to be included on transcripts but many other student activities are not included. Of the 29 faculty members who argued against the proposal many felt that, like the majority of student activities, ROTC should not be included on transcripts and that doing so would serve as an endorsement of the U.S. Military.

Richard M. Lerner, Professor of Child Development in the School of Arts and Sciences, was one of 41 faculty members who voted in favor of including ROTC on student transcripts.

For Lerner, it came down to a question of treating ROTC no differently from other activities.

“Graduation from an elite university like Tufts is a ticket to a good life and a strong alumni network,” Lerner said.  “For a young person to defer or delay that life and career path for something they believe in, to put service before personal success, is to be admired. We list other programs and honors on our student’s transcripts and we shouldn’t do any less for the students in ROTC.”

Lerner, a self-described “1960’s hippie” who never served in the military said his positive interactions with military personnel has shaped his feelings towards the armed services.

“The most anti-war people I know are military leaders,” Lerner said.  “They’re not looking to start wars because they know better than anyone the sacrifice that goes into them. But they do believe we need to stand up and defend ourselves, and they’re willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the country.”

Lerner said he’s gotten to know several military personnel through his work on the board of the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC), a national non-profit which works to ensure quality educational opportunities for children of military personnel.

“Over 2 million children have at least one parent currently serving in the U.S. military as active duty, National Guard and Reserve personnel, and another 4 million are the children of veterans who’ve served since 9/11,” Lerner said.  “Most of these children fly under the radar – their teachers may not know about the challenges their facing, including moving a lot or having their parents away.”

As director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development in the Eliot Pearson Department of Child Development, Lerner is bringing his expertise in positive youth development to this large group of underserved children.

“These children are resilient, smart and productive. It’s important that we look at the unique challenges they’re facing and provide them with support,” Lerner said.  “The parents volunteer; but the kids are drafted.”

Originally published December 2011