The Reserve Officer Training Corps programs at Arkansas State University-Jonesboro and 12 other institutions have been given a reprieve, not a free pass from closure. In notifying officials at the colleges and university, U.S. Army officials were merely acknowledging that they had bungled the process and will now try to do it right.
That could mean that any or all of the programs will be on the chopping block again in two years.
ASU officials and ROTC cadets were elated when university President Charles Welch received a call from Army officials last Wednesday. In effect, the Army was reversing an earlier notice that the 13 programs would be closed after the 2014-15 academic year and instead placing them on 24 months’ probation.
It’s unclear when the probationary status will begin, and presumably the universities will find that out when the Army provides written notification.
A check of news organizations that cover the other 12 institutions on the closure list showed that officials at each received the same verbal notice last week.
Leaders at the 13 colleges and universities had been stunned by the closure notice, which came in a letter from Thomas R. Lamont, assistant secretary of the Army. Curiously, the letter received by ASU Chancellor Dr. Tim Hudson was hand-stamped "Sept. 19, 2013," even though the rest of the letter was typed and Hudson did not receive it until Oct. 2. That’s the same day that the Army issued a news release about the action.
However, word about the closure had leaked out through social media as early as mid-August, just as the fall semester was getting under way.
"This action is not a reflection of either the quality of your program or the outstanding cadets you have produced," Lamont’s letter said. "The Army arrived at this difficult decision after careful consideration of how to best accomplish its mission with a reduction of resources."
An Army spokesman told the New York Times that it had selected the programs for closing because they were commissioning fewer than 15 officers per year. The Army has not closed any ROTC programs since 1998, the spokesman said, but wanted to focus on larger markets such as New York and Chicago.
Indeed, ASU averaged 14.6 commissions per year between 2008-12 and had only nine last spring.
But in 2011 the Army’s Cadet Command had slashed its contract mission — the goal for signing up future commissioned officers — from 24 to 10 and its commission quota from 16 to eight. That effectively reduced the program’s goals, and then the resulting numbers were used to justify closure.
An Army Information Paper later provided to the affected schools hints that the original decision goes back to a 2011 study of program viability standards, along with geography, demographics and other Army criteria. That paper emphasizes the 15-commissions-per-year standard as being critical.
The Army simply didn’t follow its own procedures.
Identifying an ROTC program not living up to its expectations would ordinarily call for a 24-month probationary period, during which time the program would be given the resources needed to bring the program up to standards.
Instead, the 13 programs were singled out, and resources were withdrawn. For example, ASU started this school year without a recruiting officer, critical for fulfilling its cadet quotas.
Worse, the timing of the closure announcement — at the start of a school year — surely affected recruiting. Students can take two years of ROTC before signing a contract to become a commissioned officer, then must complete two more years before being commissioned. Thus freshmen and sophomores could not finish the program under the Oct. 2 closure notice.
How long each program will be available remains an open-ended question for all 13 schools.
The Oct. 2 closure notice produced a firestorm of protests, not only from ASU supporters but also from supporters of the other 12 programs — especially because the Army offered little in the way of an explanation and no appeal process.
However, Arkansas’ senior Sen. Mark Pryor took a lead role in defending the 77-year-old ASU program by threatening to hold up Defense Department appointments until getting answers about the action. Arkansas’ other senator, John Boozman, pledged to join the effort, and 1st District Congressman Rick Crawford also helped stir the waters.
The Army was apparently feeling pressure from many quarters. University of Southern Mississippi President Rodney Bennett credited his state’s two senators, a congressman, the governor and a couple of military leaders for getting involved. Leaders at other campuses offered similar credits.
"It did not surprise me all that much that there would be considerable pushback," Arthur T. Coumbe, a historian at the U.S. Military Academy, told the New York Times. "You really have to have a clear and overwhelming political consensus for these things to go off without a hitch."
Instead, Army officials apparently turned a deaf ear to political considerations while making what seemed to be a political decision. More than half of the affected schools are in the South, and 11 are in "Red" states.
In a future column I’ll deal with what ASU must do to pull through the probationary status successfully.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.