Colleges Await End of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Change in military's policy on gay people would ease way for campus recruiters

Corey Wascinski for The Chronicle

Rachel Newman (left), a student at New York Law School, with her partner and classmate Andy Izenson. As gay-rights activists, they have protested the presence of military recruiters on the campus as long as the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is in effect. "I would join the military and serve in the JAG Corps if I were allowed to," Ms. Newman says.
February 28, 2010

From a young age, Rachel Newman, a student at New York Law School, imagined wearing a U.S. military uniform someday. But when military recruiters came to her campus in February, she wore a different kind of uniform: an olive-drab T-shirt that read: "ASK. TELL."

Ms. Newman wears her shirt to protest the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which prevents openly gay people like Ms. Newman from enlisting. The policy, which went into effect in 1993, allows gay people to serve in the armed forces but prevents them from disclosing their sexual orientation and limits the ability of military officials to ask service members about their sexual orientation.

"Without a moment's hesitation, I would join the military and serve in the JAG Corps if I were allowed to," said Ms. Newman, whose desire to enlist in the Judge Advocate General's Corps would fall in line with successive generations of military service in her family.

Ms. Newman may get her wish. President Obama vowed in his State of the Union address in January to work with Congress and military officials this year to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The timeline for a possible repeal remains unclear, and some members of Congress continue to support the policy. But with both Robert M. Gates, the secretary of defense, and Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advocating an end to "don't ask, don't tell," its repeal appears likelier than ever before.

An end to "don't ask, don't tell" would have a direct effect on openly gay college students like Ms. Newman who hope to enlist. More broadly, it could mean a cooling of tensions on campuses between the military and students and faculty members who have protested the policy.

Some colleges, noting that "don't ask, don't tell" violated their nondiscrimination policies, sought to ban military recruiters from their campuses. But the Solomon Amendment, which since the mid-1990s has allowed the federal government to withhold funds from colleges that bar military recruiters, discourages institutions from doing so.

Following a lawsuit filed by a coalition of several dozen law schools, the Supreme Court upheld the Solomon Amendment in 2006. Since then all but a handful of colleges have chosen to allow recruiters rather than forgo federal funds.

But on many campuses, large numbers of students and faculty members have remained firm in their opposition to the military's policy and continue to protest the presence of recruiters.

"There are certainly tensions," says Arthur S. Leonard, a professor at New York Law School who specializes in gay-rights law and who was instrumental in banning employers who discriminated based on sexual orientation from recruiting there in the 1980s. The law school has periodically barred military recruiters, too, but it dropped the ban after the 2006 court decision.

"If the military's policy is changed as a result of the current discussions," he says, "that will definitely make it less fraught for the military to come on campus."

Return of the Recruiters

A repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" would most directly affect two colleges: Vermont Law School and the William Mitchell College of Law, in Minnesota. They ban military recruiters because the federal law conflicts with the colleges' nondiscrimination policies. If the statute is overturned, the two institutions plan to welcome back recruiters—and federal funds.

Both are independent law schools unaffiliated with research universities, which tend to depend on the continued receipt of millions of dollars from various federal agencies. Even though the two law schools have not been as dependent on federal dollars, deans at both of them say having that revenue source back could nonetheless help support important projects.

Vermont Law School forgoes about $500,000 in federal funds each year, says Geoffrey B. Shields, its dean. The school would immediately look into a wide variety of grants from the Education Department and other federal agencies, including funds that might be available for classroom technology, if "don't ask, don't tell" were overturned, he says.

Eric S. Janus, dean at William Mitchell, says it received a "low level" of federal funds on a "sporadic" basis before banning recruiters. But the college is now developing a public-health law center, for which he says it would like to seek federal aid, including funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed.

Mr. Shields and Mr. Janus say some students at their colleges enlist in the military on their own each year regardless of the recruiting ban on campus. Military recruiters, they agree, should expect a warm welcome back on their campuses if "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed.

"Our core desire is for all of our students to have the opportunity to serve in the military," Mr. Janus says.

Mr. Shields emphasizes that his college's long history of fighting "don't, ask, don't tell" does not stem from opposition to the military. Vermont Law School was a plaintiff in the case against the Solomon Amendment and still sends several dozen students and faculty members to lobby against "don't ask, don't tell" in Washington each year.

"It's not that we're against the military," he says. "We're against this particular policy."

Continued Protest

Although all other colleges allow military representatives on their campuses, the recruiters do not necessarily get a warm welcome everywhere.

Relationships between law schools and the military have been particularly fraught. The JAG Corps depends on law-school graduates to serve as military lawyers. But it was law schools that led the fight against the Solomon Amendment. And the Association of American Law Schools requires its members to establish that employers who recruit on campus have nondiscrimination policies. Those policies must include protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The law-school association also requires members to take steps to "ameliorate" the military's presence on campus, such as making efforts to inform students that the military violates the school's nondiscrimination policy. Some schools have been more aggressive in their protests of the policy than others.

Diane H. Mazur, a professor who studies civilian-military relations at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law, says that in some traditionally conservative regions of the United States, law schools typically hold forums about "don't ask, don't tell" but are often more concerned about not "appearing to be rude to the military."

"Southern law schools perform the minimum amount of ameliorative activity that they can get away with," she says. "We are not in the land of active anti-'don't ask, don't tell' activity in the way that law schools particularly in the Northeast are."

But protest thrives at a number of law schools, even if it has recently tended to take a less dramatic form than it did just before the Supreme Court's decision on the Solomon Amendment, when some students led large rallies and signed up for interview slots with military recruiters only to argue with them about "don't ask, don't tell." At many colleges, deans and faculty members continue to send e-mail messages to all students before the recruiters come, expressing support for the military but opposition to the policy, and explaining why the schools must allow the recruiters to show up.

Some schools go further. Stanford Law School faculty members send e-mail messages to students requesting that they meet with recruiters off campus, out of respect for their gay and lesbian peers. Protesting students at Georgetown University's law school typically wear shirts featuring the word "ARMY" in rainbow colors when recruiters are on the campus. This year they also painted toy soldiers pink and placed them in classrooms.

New York University law students pass out rainbow-colored ribbons and sign letters to Congress protesting "don't ask, don't tell." When recruiters come to the campus, rainbow flags often are hung in the law school's main lobby. Students and faculty members at Western New England College School of Law wear rainbow ribbons; at one time, they placed rainbow-colored candy in the interview rooms.

New York Law School, which has included "sexual orientation" in its nondiscrimination policy since the 1983, has a particularly long history of opposing the military's ban on openly gay service members. It joined Vermont Law School and the William Mitchell College of Law on the blacklist for federal dollars after the Supreme Court's Solomon decision, but gave up its ban on military recruiters shortly thereafter.

Richard A. Matasar, dean at New York, says the law school no longer believes that protest will be effective if only a handful of schools bar recruiters. The school receives varying amounts of federal funds each year, he notes, ranging between virtually nothing and sums in the "low hundreds of thousands."

When recruiters came to New York Law School in February, Ms. Newman and her peers in the Stonewall Law Students Association, a gay-rights group, made known their stance on "don't ask, don't tell." They placed posters opposing the policy outside entrances to the school and at a table in the student center near where a recruiter conducted interviews. At their table they asked students to sign petitions against "don't ask, don't tell" and distributed articles about Defense Department officials' asking for a repeal of the policy.

But not all students embrace their colleges' efforts to protest "don't ask, don't tell." Louis Adimando, president of the New York Law School Republicans, said students in his group go and thank the recruiters, out of concern that the protest is insulting to them.

"The recruiters have no part in setting the policy, so why are we protesting them?" he says.

The group also complains to Mr. Matasar when he sends e-mail messages to the student body about the school's opposition to "don't ask, don't tell." Mr. Adimando says it is inappropriate for the dean to "proselytize to the students."

Ms. Newman, meanwhile, says most students who come up to her petition table are supportive of the protest, though she does get questions. "Some people get quite defensive, and they want to know why we're protesting the military when we're involved in military action," she says.

Thawing of Tensions

If Congress abolishes "don't ask, don't tell," those kinds of protests, and the choice that administrators are forced to make between allowing recruiters and losing federal money, could disappear overnight.

"There's nothing to protest at that point," Mr. Matasar says.

While antiwar protests are unlikely ever to disappear from campuses, scholars say colleges' attitude toward the military would probably improve significantly with the end of "don't ask, don't tell."

Kenji Yoshino, a professor at the NYU School of Law who studies Constitutional and antidiscrimination law, predicts that an end to "don't ask, don't tell" would have the "hugely positive symbolic effect of bringing the universities back into alignment with the military." When he was a professor at Yale Law School, Mr. Yoshino was a lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the Solomon Amendment.

He and many other opponents of the military policy are frustrated with people questioning their patriotism because of their opposition to "don't ask, don't tell." An end to the policy would "allow people who are extremely supportive of our troops to be able to manifest that support in an unambivalent way," he says.

Some students, however, are skeptical that a repeal of the policy would change much. "It's just one less thing that a left-wing group will attack the military for," says Mr. Adimando, of New York Law School. "There's a general disdain for the military. ... If it's not this, it will be something else."

The Department of Defense declines to comment on how the end of "don't ask, don't tell" might affect its relationships with colleges. Eileen Lainez, a spokeswoman, calls any speculation "premature."

She adds that the department does not believe that current demonstrations on campuses have hampered military recruiting, which she calls "highly successful."

Scholars and law professors have mixed views about whether the end of "don't ask, don't tell"—and, with it, a general warming of relations between colleges and the military—would increase students' interest in the military on a large scale.

Taylor Flynn, a professor at the Western New England College School of Law who studies discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, expects no significant increase in student interest. "Our students are adults," she says, "and they come in with fairly fixed views about whether they support the military-industrial complex."

But other faculty members say some students interested in the military may be wary of talking to recruiters when their classmates are protesting the military's presence on the campus. Florida's Ms. Mazur foresees "substantially more interest" in military careers among students if "don't ask, don't tell" is overturned. Getting rid of the policy, she says, "will make the military look different in a very fundamental way to law students."

An end to "don't ask, don't tell" will, of course, have the most obvious effect on one group: openly gay students who dream of enlisting.

"Any single person who is now going to enlist who wouldn't have been able to enlist is a significant change," says Mr. Matasar, of New York Law School.

Not only would students like Ms. Newman be able to fulfill their dream of enlisting, but other lesbian and gay students, uncertain of their career paths, could take an interest in the military.

Kathryne Young, who is pursuing a joint law and doctoral degree in sociology at Stanford, says she thought about working for the JAG Corps before she came to fully realize that she is gay. Her father was a Marine, and she says she would look into military service if "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed.

For now, Ms. Young must pursue other options.

"I have no interest in returning to the closet," she says. "It was stifling in there."