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Emory University's ROTC Referendum

When President Richard M. Nixon authorized the invasion of Cambodia on April 30, 1970, thereby embroiling the United States in even more military conflict, students at Emory University opted for a more immediate anti-war strategy: terminating Emory’s Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (AFROTC) program. Student government leaders and faculty members of Emory College, the University’s equivalent of a College of Arts and Sciences, began discussing AFROTC’s role as a credit-granting department in 1969. The discussion lay dormant until the spring of 1970, culminating in a faculty vote on May 7 to remove AFROTC from Emory College. Before the vote could be finalized, however, SGA president Doug Silvis suggested a campus-wide referendum so Emory students could direct the course of policy change.  

The referendum, documented in this WSB clip, takes place on Monday, May 25, 1970 and is open to all students at Emory and on sister campus, Oxford College.  It asks:

  • Should AFROTC be retained as a credit-granting department at Emory University?
  • Should AFROTC be modified at Emory University to be an extracurricular activity?

Administrators discarded the results of the student referendum because the voting procedures failed to meet Emory’s election codes. Several days later, College faculty voted anyway to remove AFROTC no longer allowing it to provide academic credit. AFROTC would still be a part of Emory University, albeit as an extracurricular activity.                                   

Anti-war and liberal students were not amenable to this option. They felt that the AFROTC’s presence on campus, in any guise, demonstrated complicity with war. Emory publicly and unconvincingly claimed neutrality, but students discerned a clear bias. While the University trained students for military careers, it did not likewise train students for careers as Black Panthers or Weathermen, organizations no more violent and no less valid than the military. Some students argued the immorality of the war also contradicted Emory’s Christian foundation.     

Emory University President Sanford S. Atwood countered that the purpose of ROTC was not to militarize Emory, but to liberalize the nation’s military officers so that they could think critically on the battlefield.  Military Science courses did not so much encourage free critical thinking, however, as they did discipline students’ minds and bodies to respect authority and follow orders.  Military Science aimed to bring students into the Armed Services fold, teaching the depth and detail of military history, strategy, ideology, and procedure.  Classes also trained students to wield the technology and weaponry of combat.

President Atwood further argued that Emory could not immediately terminate its AFROTC program because of obligations to students already enrolled. The President agreed to reconsider the issue. In the meantime, Emory’s Board of Trustees removed AFROTC from Emory College and placed it within the jurisdiction of the Vice President and Dean of Faculties.  This move diminished faculty and student decision-making authority over the program. 

In its new incarnation, AFROTC became the Division of Aerospace Studies, women were allowed into the Corps, and contrary to what students and faculty had voted and protested for, Aerospace students could continue to receive college credit, unless academic departments specifically voted against it as did the Law and Business schools.  On November 2, Emory College faculty voted to prohibit Aerospace Studies courses from conferring academic credit as of the fall semester of 1971.

After Emory’s Board of Trustees instituted these changes, interest in the Aerospace Studies program declined.  By 1974, enrollment had dropped to such lows that it was no longer economically feasible to continue the program.  On May 7, 1974, Emory University representatives met with the Department of Defense and agreed to terminate AFROTC’s twenty-three year tenure at Emory, effective June 30, 1974.  The last four AFROTC students were commissioned as 2nd Lieutenants in the Air Force reserves on June 10, 1974.  To this day, Emory’s Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC courses are offered at cooperating institution, The Georgia Institute of Technology.

Whereas much of the success of the Civil Rights Movement was due to its strategy of direct nonviolent resistance, by 1968, the year of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s death, violence had become an almost accepted fiber within the national fabric. Students, student government leaders and faculty members at Emory University, however, as well as members of the Weathermen and the Women’s Liberation Movement, were not satisfied to condemn the federal government for all of society’s ills.  Instead, as the AFROTC debates show, this new wave of activists called upon every citizen to consider her or his own contributions to condoning and perpetuating violence.  They declared that if the federal government would not immediately withdraw from Southeast Asia and Indochina as public opinion demanded, then the people must examine their own lives and communities and immediately withdraw their support from any institution furthering the militarization of the United States.  

Perhaps the activists reasoned that by asking individuals rather than institutions to commit to nonviolence; that by asking individual people to – as Mahatma Gandhi advised – “become the change you want to see in the world,”  they could more successfully work together to create the beloved community envisioned by civil rights activists. Perhaps the late 1960s and early 1970s were not so far removed from the prior decade after all.

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Discussion Questions

1. What currently are the arguments in the debates over military recruitment on high school and college campuses? What are the implications of an intersection between the military and the schools?

2. What is a referendum? What kinds of issues are normally voted by referendum? What are some other ways in which citizens can exercise their right to direct popular sovereignty?  

3. Why are some voting procedures more indirect, such as the national vote for President of the United States? How is the President elected?

Take it to the Streets!

As a class, discuss whether you think it is within students’ rights to direct the course of policy change within your school or any school. Present and hear arguments for and against students’ rights. Discuss at what age or stage students should be granted rights, if at all. Then, working in small groups, write a serious Student Bill of Rights appropriate to your grade or age level. Write also a Teacher’s Bill of Rights.  Make sure your wording is articulate and your arguments well-reasoned. Reconvene as a class and consolidate (debate if you need to) your enumerated rights into one Student Bill and one Teacher Bill. 

Paste these to your classroom door (a la the theologian Martin Luther) and use them as guiding principles within the classroom for one week.  At the end of the week, discuss, as a class, what changed in the class’s interactions and what stayed the same.  Discuss what you would add and what you would take away from the Bills.  Ask yourselves, should classrooms function as democracies as such, or should they be ruled by some other decision-making system?

Writer: Aggie Ebrahimi
Editors: Christina L. Davis, Aggie Ebrahimi, Mary Boyce Hicks, and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Researcher: Aggie Ebrahimi
Web Site Designer: William Weems

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