Rank and File: Diversifying the Military Begins with Maintaining a Varied, Qualified Pool of Students in ROTC Programs at Colleges and Universities

By Arnett, Autumn A. | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, October 22, 2015 | Go to article overview

Rank and File: Diversifying the Military Begins with Maintaining a Varied, Qualified Pool of Students in ROTC Programs at Colleges and Universities


Arnett, Autumn A., Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently emphasized the importance of diversity in the military, saying, " ... We must start from a position of inclusivity, not exclusivity. Anything less is not just wrong--it's bad defense policy, and it puts our future strength at risk.

"... It takes decades to grow our senior military leaders, and today, we can't afford to close ourselves off to anyone," Carter continued in a June Pentagon speech. "As we remind ourselves how diversity and inclusion help make us stronger, we must also remember another reason why they're important: because they're part of our national character."

In 2012, Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., whose congressional district sits only miles from the Adanta University Center--home of five of the state's 10 historically Black colleges and universities--spoke of the importance of diversity in military leadership as the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act was being reauthorized.

"It's important that our military leadership reflects America," said Johnson at the time. "Minorities are underrepresented among officers and senior enlisted personnel. We need more diverse representation in the military's senior leadership."

A March 2011 report by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission declared "the Armed Forces have not yet succeeded in developing a continuing stream of leaders who are as demographically diverse as the Nation they serve. Racial/ethnic minorities and women still lag behind non-Hispanic white men in terms of representative percentage of military leadership positions held."

Despite some gains over the previous 10 years, a 2013 Department of Defense (DoD) report found that only 9.4 percent of active-duty officers across all branches of the military are Black, compared to 17 percent of enlisted members. In fact, all racial/ethnic minorities are grossly underrepresented among the officer ranks; Whites comprise 77.6 percent of all officers in the U.S. military.

"The officer corps is innately an exclusive club," says Navy Lt. Rabb Muhammad, assistant operations officer for the Navy Recruiting District Atlanta. "Most officers come from a strong family military tradition. Some have had family in the military that can be traced to the birth of the Republic. ...Minorities have only been able to serve in the capacity of being an officer since the 1940s. Minorities are starting extremely late to the race."

Not only that, he says, "[In order] to be selected for training as an officer, access to quality secondary and higher education is essential to passing the various officer accession entrance exams and the interviews required to obtain a nomination. African-Americans, Latino Americans and other ethnic groups historically have not had equal footing when it comes to quality educational opportunities."

HBCU connection

That is where historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) come in. Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) is an officer training program housed on college campuses across the country, including more than 20 HBCUs. If the DoD is to increase diversity among the officer ranks, it will be the programs at these institutions that will help fill the gaps, say experts.

But campus ROTC programs do more than just serve as a pipeline to fill a diversity void for the military; they benefit the institutions and students, too.

"Most ROTC units are based out of universities and colleges that have a large student body," Muhammad says. "The value of [small HBCUs] having their own ROTC units, independent from a larger university, is to give them the ability to draw federal dollars to their school in the form of tuition.

"What the schools have to do as part of the bargain is not only provide facilities for the ROTC unit to operate, but help the ROTC unit actively recruit qualified students into the program so the [armed forces] can award those students scholarships and, by effect, help fund the school," he continues. …

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