WASHINGTON — President Bush is delivering a stern rebuke to universities that do not offer military officer training programs on campus, telling a group of newly commissioned officers at the White House that while their schools "may not honor your military service, the United States of America does."
Mr. Bush yesterday presided over a ceremony honoring 58 graduates of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps who now become officers in the four branches of the armed forces. While recognizing the cadets' sacrifice and service to the nation, the president reserved his strongest remarks for some of the country's elite universities, including Columbia and New York universities, which do not offer the ROTC program because of their long-standing opposition to the government's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military.
"Every American citizen is entitled to his or her opinion about our military," the president said, as the graduating cadets stood behind him in the East Room of the White House. "But surely the concept of diversity is large enough to embrace one of the most diverse institutions in American life. It should not be hard for our great schools of learning to find room to honor the service of men and women who are standing up to defend the freedoms that make the work of our universities possible."
The president continued: "If cadets or midshipmen are graduating from universities that believe ROTC is not worthy of a place on campus, here's my message: Your university may not honor your military, but the United States of America does."
The final flourish drew a round of applause from the cadets, along with dozens of their friends and family in attendance. The event was the first joint commissioning ceremony ever held at the White House.
Earlier, Mr. Bush noted that while all of the cadets "made sacrifices" in completing their training in addition to their college coursework, those whose universities did not have the program on campus "have had to endure even greater hardship," frequently in the form of long commutes. In New York City, there are two ROTC programs — one at Fordham University in the Bronx and another at St. John's University in Queens. That can mean a commute of an hour or longer for students at NYU and Columbia, although Fordham has recently offered some ROTC classes at its Lincoln Center campus in Manhattan.
Yesterday's ceremony featured a diverse group of cadets from all 50 states and included a graduate student at Columbia, Bret Woellner, who was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army.
The president's statement took officials at a few leading universities aback. Spokesmen at NYU and Harvard and Yale universities, which also do not offer ROTC on campus, did not respond publicly.
Columbia University voted in 2005 not to re-establish an active ROTC program on campus. In a statement, the university said it "has the utmost respect for the men and women who serve our country in the military."
Columbia and NYU were part of a coalition of universities and law professors that fought the government in court over the Solomon Amendment, which denies most federal funding to schools that do not allow military recruiters on campus. The universities have blocked recruiters because they say the "don't ask, don't tell" policy violates their nondiscrimination policies. The Supreme Court ruled last year against the universities.
Riaz Zaidi, president of Columbia's Hamilton Society, a military group, said the president's words were "gratifying."
Mr. Zaidi, a cadet in the Fordham ROTC program, said that while he thought the military should reconsider the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Columbia should reinstate the officer-training program regardless.
As for the extra commute to classes and drills, he said: "It does pose additional responsibilities — I don't know if I'd call them hardships."