Paul DelGrosso, president of the Johns Hopkins Gay and Lesbian Alliance, wants ROTC to change its policy of excluding gays and lesbians or to get off the university campus.
For Mr. DelGrosso, this isn't a homosexual issue, it's key to anyone who cares about discrimination.
"If the university violates its non-discrimination policy by excusing discrimination against gays and lesbians, it opens up a whole can of worms," said Mr. DelGrosso, a senior in the school's writing program. "Can the university choose anyone in a long list to discriminate against when it's necessary?"
Mr. DelGrosso, who admits that he is fighting an uphill battle on the conservative Homewood campus, is one among dozens of students nationwide taking on the Department of Defense. The department, which sets policy for campus ROTC programs, does not permit homosexuals to serve in the armed forces. Johns Hopkins, like many universities nationwide, has adopted policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
While the opponents of the ROTC policy clamor for change and supporters praise ROTC's role in leadership-grooming, many university administrators are scrambling for middle ground.
"I think the federal policy needs careful examination: why it's there, what it's intended to do, what the underlying rationale is," said William C. Richardson, president of the Johns Hopkins University. "But if you ask me if I am sympathetic with those concerns of the students, the answer is yes."
The challenge to ROTC policy began almost a year ago at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Within months, the campaign spread around the country and the American Civil Liberties Union was offering support for organizing and information-gathering.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where a gay student was booted from ROTC, became a leader in the struggle.
In October, the MIT faculty voted to develop a five-year program for MIT and others to work for reversal of the Department of Defense policy and to establish a task force to recommend action if the policy is not changed -- with the expectation that banning ROTC from campus is a distinct option.
At Johns Hopkins, Dr. Richardson says he supports MIT's actions,which include asking schools to lobby Congress, the branch of government with the authority to change armed forces policy. (The Supreme Court has declined to hear cases that would change current policy).
But many students at Hopkins aren't eager to jeopardize the ROTC program.
"I feel ROTC is a big benefit to students at Hopkins," said Bob Nelson, a cadet in ROTC and president of the student government. "A lot of people don't know all the facts or understand the consequences if ROTC is banned from the campus. Many student scholarships would be lost."
At Hopkins, which has about 3,000 undergraduates, 57 students are in ROTC, of whom 48 receive scholarships. Another 23 students in the Hopkins ROTC are cross-enrolled from University of Baltimore, University of Maryland Baltimore County and the University of Maryland College Park. The program has courses in military science that are open to all students, in addition to its training program.
Johns Hopkins also receives large funding grants from the Department of Defense. In 1990, the university received $415 million, making it the largest university recipient of military aid. Mr. DelGrosso said these grants make university officials hesitant to change ROTC policy. But Dr. Richardson, a military spokesman and a university ROTC officer all say such funding and ROTC policy are unrelated.
In fact, the university ROTC has no control over any aspect of the current debate.
"ROTC is not a player. We're a shuttlecock being passed back and forth," said Capt. Richard Plasket, an instructor in the ROTC program. "I am aware of some of the activities that the homosexual organizations are trying to do, but I don't have any problem with their protesting."
But some other students do.
The Young Republicans on campus have mounted a petition campaign supporting ROTC, and letters to the student newspapers are running 50-50 on the issue. Both the administration and the student government have set up committees to study the issue.
Still, a recent telephone poll conducted by Mr. DelGrosso suggests that a majority supports the status quo. That contention bears out Dean Susan Boswell's evaluation of campus apathy.
"In general, students at Hopkins tend not to be unaware of issues butnot to take an active stance," said Dr. Boswell, dean of students. "Several students are active on this issue, but I couldn't tell you how the majority felt about homosexuality."
Students at the University of Baltimore law school seem to be having more success with a similar campaign. Their goal has been to prohibit on-campus military recruitment for judge advocates general.
"Last year, the faculty voted to apply our non-discrimination policy to the placement office," said Shannon Avery, a UB student who helped organize a petition drive against military recruitment. "The president turned it down, and the faculty voted to override. Now the issue goes to the Board of Regents."
Mr. DelGrosso, who has also filed a complaint with the Baltimore Community Relations Commission, believes that once students understand the issues, they will stand against discrimination.
But even he admits that his crusading has had a cost.
"I feel like a leper when I walk across campus; people avoid me," said Mr. DelGrosso, who recently attended a national conference on organizing against ROTC. "I used to be able to talk to Bob [Bob Nelson, the student government president]. But when he asked me what I did over the weekend and I started telling him about the [ROTC] conference, he just kind of walked away."