By Andrew Brown
On Veterans Day, sophomore Andre Thomas, a fine arts major, was sworn in as a member of the Princeton/TCNJ/Rider chapter of Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). In celebration of his induction, Thomas’ ceremony was opened with the national anthem — that he sang himself. Thomas is currently enlisted in the United States Army.
Thomas, of Staten Island, is the first Rider student in 17 years to become a member of the organization, and all of the day’s speakers hailed the event as the re-birth of the long gone, but not forgotten, Rider ROTC program.
In fact, while the program may have been forgotten by university students, it never went away. ROTC has always been available to Rider students who qualify.
However, there is an asterisk. Rider stopped giving credit for ROTC classes in 1992. Not coincidentally, that was the last time a student of the university joined the organization. Now, any student who wishes to join the program must travel to either TCNJ or Princeton in order to take courses and engage in drill.
So why did Rider stop giving credit for ROTC courses? This question can be answered in four simple words: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” This ruling, enacted under the Clinton administration, was intended to eliminate discrimination against gay people looking to join the military.
Under this new policy, gays were no longer required to disclose their sexual orientation, which, previously, would have eliminated them from being allowed to join any branch of the service. However, gay activists were not pleased with this outcome, as they had been hoping for a stronger law that would allow openly gay people to enlist.
In light of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the University Academic Policy Committee decided in 1992 that it would no longer accept ROTC courses for credit. The university felt that it would be inappropriate to support an organization that was not welcoming to gays.
Dr. Jim Castagnera, Rider’s assistant provost and a veteran himself who joined the Rider community about 12 years ago, said that this sanction on the program did not prohibit Rider students from joining.
The opportunity to participate in ROTC off campus has been available “for as long as I’ve been here,” said Castagnera, who has just helped to start a veterans association on campus.
Lt. Col. John Stark, a professor of military science at Princeton University who is responsible for managing the Princeton/TCNJ/Rider ROTC chapter, was also in attendance on Wednesday. He said that under the current system Rider students who chose to join the ROTC program are comparable to collegiate athletes.
“Although they don’t receive credit for their course work, the school will accept their scholarship money,” Stark said. “It’s essentially just a very involved extra-curricular activity. It’s basically like playing a sport at a school on scholarship. You won’t get course credit for doing it, but it does help pay for their education and give them valuable experience.”
So far, according to Stark, there has been no communication between Rider and his ROTC chapter about the possibility of eventually changing the university’s policies about the organization.
“Honestly, we haven’t even talked about it yet,” Stark said. “There’s still only one student from the school enrolled in the program. Maybe if it gets up to seven or eight, we could discuss the possibility of holding classes at Rider again. I’m still not sure about how we’d handle the issue of credit. For now, the current system seems to be working well.”
So it looks like Thomas will continue making the trek to TCNJ three times a week.