UMBC to apply for on-campus ROTC unit

Decision could bring influx of scholarships to school

May 29, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County will apply for an on-campus Army ROTC unit, officials said yesterday, ending weeks of speculation about an issue that has sparked heated protest on the Catonsville campus.

The decision, which was expected to be publicly announced last night, means that the state college could receive an influx of new ROTC scholarships beginning this fall. Officer training on campus would probably begin about 2010.

"We believe that there is an important role for universities to play in helping to prepare leaders in all sectors of American society," said UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III.

The Army's Cadet Command still has to approve UMBC's application, but Maj. Stephen D. Pomper, the new head of the Johns Hopkins University's ROTC unit - where about 20 UMBC cadets now train - said the public college's "chances are extremely good" because of a nationwide expansion of ROTC programs by a military stretched thin by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hrabowski's decision was welcomed by current UMBC cadets, who have to commute about 13 miles to Charles Village for physical training and course work and who say cohort morale and recruitment will be enhanced by a campus home.

"There will be greater pride, greater interaction between all the cadets," said Daniel Ingram, 21, a rising senior from Davidsonville who hopes to become a helicopter combat pilot when he graduates. The commute to Hopkins has been a "hassle," Ingram said. "But the worst part is that I have to go somewhere else to be part of something that I like to do."

As it has on other campuses, opposition to the ROTC unit at Catonsville focused in large part on the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which critics say is in conflict with UMBC's own nondiscrimination policy. Yesterday, Hrabowski said he disagrees with the military's refusal to allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly, and Provost Art Johnson said the administration will craft a formal statement articulating UMBC's position on the issue.

Hrabowski said he hopes a closer relationship with the military will allow the university to contribute to the debate on gays in the military. "When we're working to help prepare leaders, we have the opportunity to express our opinions and to have them heard," he said.

Paula McCusker, a vice president of the UMBC Freedom Alliance, a student organization that supports the campus gay community, said the group maintains its opposition to ROTC. "We don't agree with the decision, but we respect it and we've begun a conversation with the president to address the needs of [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people on campus," said McCusker, 18, a biochemical engineering major from Perry Hall.

If the campus is accepted as a host site, a department of military science would be established and staffed by instructors selected and paid for by the Army but with UMBC approval. The unit would be based in a campus building that is not now used, the provost said.

ROTC is the Army's chief officer-training and recruiting operation, with about 270 "host" campuses and more than 1,200 college campuses with satellite programs. The Army is looking to add between 15 and 25 new ROTC units at U.S. campuses, said Paul Kotakis, a Cadet Command spokesman. By fiscal 2011, the command's mandate is to produce 5,350 commissioned officers a year, up from 3,900 in fiscal 2005, he said.

Kotakis said it is "premature" to identify other college campuses that are seeking to add ROTC programs. UMBC was invited to apply after Towson University declined a similar invitation this year.

Pomper said UMBC was a desirable host campus for the Army because the school's relatively low tuition - compared with Hopkins and Loyola College, which also has an on-campus unit - would allow the military to provide more scholarships.

The Army offers full-tuition scholarships to some ROTC participants, who receive basic military training while in school. Scholarship recipients must commit to eight years of military service. While in school, cadets also receive a $1,200 annual textbook allowance and monthly stipends ranging from $350 to $500.

The wartime context has fueled some of the protest at UMBC.

"The Army is in desperate need, their recruiting is going very badly because of this disastrous war and the UMBC administration is helping," said John H. Sinnigen, a professor of Spanish and intercultural communication. "They are promoting the war at a time when most of the country is trying to find a way out, and I find that extremely disappointing."

Sinnigen also said he was "very concerned about militarization of the campus," but Ingram, the cadet, said he hoped that an on-campus unit would dispel those concerns.

"I hope this is an opportunity to show them that militarization of the campus is not going to happen," he said. "We're not the people they think we are ... not about being the meanest and the baddest, but about helping people."

Chris M. Isgrig, 46, an Army Reserve major who recently returned from his second deployment to Iraq, said his college years at UMBC would have been "a hell of a lot easier" had there been an ROTC unit on campus in the late 1980s.

He recalled regularly waking up at 4 a.m. to drive from his home in Bel Air to Loyola for an hour of physical training and then continue to Catonsville for 8 a.m. classes.

"Anyone who tried to do what I did today would be badly penalized by the high cost of transportation," said Isgrig, who still lives in Bel Air. "More modest people such as myself would not be able to. That would be a shame since it might prevent some good people from making a go at it."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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