After almost 80 years of producing commissioned military officers, you would think the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Arkansas State University has proven itself. But that’s obviously not the case as the program on the ASU-Jonesboro campus is one of 13 nationwide placed on the chopping block by the U.S. Army.
Officials at the 13 universities, surprised in September by an announcement that their ROTC programs would be closed after the 2014-15 academic year, were relieved earlier this month when the Army backtracked — sort of — and said the 13 programs instead would be placed on 24 months’ probation.
That’s really what should have been done originally under standard Army procedure, according to sources familiar with ASU’s ROTC program. A struggling program should be placed on probation and given the resources needed to make improvements. If sufficient improvement isn’t made during the probationary period, the program then could be shut down.
Instead, these 13 programs were notified that they had not met "viability standards" required by the Army and that they would be closed to "allow for more efficient use of available resources."
A U.S. Army news release issued Oct. 2 explained: "Total enrollment and the number of lieutenants commissioned annually were some of the key variables considered in the comprehensive review. In addition, shifting demographics across the country required a review of where the Army recruits and develops its future leaders."
High-level military officials obviously received plenty of political pressure from supporters of the 13 university programs. Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor threatened to hold up Senate approval of all Defense Department appointments until getting answers about the action. ASU officials credited Pryor, as well as Arkansas’ other senator, John Boozman, and 1st District Congressman Rick Crawford, with winning the reprieve.
Nevertheless, the ASU program now must prove its worthiness.
One of the criteria used by the Army to downgrade the 13 designated programs was the number of commissioned officers. An Army spokesman told the New York Times that all 13 were commissioning fewer than 15 officers per year. And it’s true that ASU’s average from 2008 through 2013 was 14.6.
But ASU officials pointed out that in the fall of 2011 the Army had cut its contract mission (its quota for signing up future officers) from 24 to 10 and its commission quota from 16 to eight. That had something to do with ASU commissioning only nine officers last spring.
The Army thus established new rules for the game and then decided arbitrarily that ASU failed to measure up to old standards.
ASU’s commission average since 2000 has been only 11.4, and that perhaps is cause for probation. That, in turn, would call for providing resources to do better.
Instead, the Army took away the recruiting officer for the ASU program this fall, then allowed word to "leak" out that the program would be closing in August, just at the start of the fall semester and beginning of recruiting.
Who’s going to sign up for a 4-year program that is going to be shut down in less than two years?
The ASU program has a lot going for it, if the Army will look beyond the basic numbers. Consider these facts:
• At least 1,633 officers have been commissioned through the program since it was established in 1936, only 17 years after the National Defense Act established the ROTC nationwide.
• The unit has a history of producing quality officers, including a Medal of Honor recipient, two Distinguished Service Cross recipients, 13 Silver Stars, four Distinguished Flying Crosses and 12 General officers.
• A-State is the only non-military college with an entire dormitory dedicated to an ROTC battalion — a 50-room facility built by ASU at a cost of $2.85 million.
• ASU provides $66,000 annually toward military housing scholarships and spends another $136,000 annually on ROTC operations.
• The ASU battalion is housed in a former National Guard Armory of 45,000 square feet, one of few facilities dedicated to any ROTC program.
• For the fifth straight year ASU has been placed by Victory Media on its list of the most Military Friendly Schools — in the top 10 for 2012. ASU makes active duty military and their dependents, as well as honorably discharged veterans, eligible for in-state tuition.
• The university also hosts a fine facility for veterans — the Beck PRIDE (Personal Rehabilitation, Individual Development and Education) Center — which has provided an array of services to veterans and their family members since its establishment in 2007.
Closing the ROTC program at A-State could also have a detrimental effect on the Arkansas National Guard. In a letter to Michael Jordan, a top official of the Military Officers Association of America, Bob Schoenborn of Jonesboro, alumni commander of the ASU battalion, explained why.
Of the 121 enrolled cadets this fall, 46 percent are enrolled in both ROTC and the Guard at the same time, which means that the Guard gets many of its officers (about five per year) through the ASU program. Schoenborn also pointed out that the Arkansas Guard’s officer strength is low because of "the heavy burden they have borne in the Global War on Terror since 2002."
Army officials won’t find a better partner than ASU in producing commissioned officers, and surely quality counts.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.