A History of Army ROTC at Carnegie Mellon University
By Alexandre Ganten
Carnegie Mellon University has a close relationship with the United States Army. The connections include the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Innovation Framework and its partnership with the Army Research Laboratory to the Software Engineering Institute’s historic partnership with the DoD, CMU has played an essential role in supporting the United States Army. Despite these longstanding and consequential ties, however, there is currently no Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (AROTC) program on campus. Instead, a limited contingent of CMU cadets remained cross-enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Battalion since the program disbanded in 1990. Yet, the historical record tells a different story altogether, obscuring its 70 years of history as part of CMU.
The weak presence of AROTC represents a substantial missed opportunity for the university. It limits the touch points between civil society and the military by decreasing exposure of the former to the latter. It also means that CMU is less able to educate and instill its values in future officers, which is a vital benefit of the ROTC model. It diminishes the educational opportunities of students and obscures a path for socioeconomically disadvantaged students to get support. But most importantly, the absence of AROTC represents a divergence from what was once the norm. Where there was once a robust, vibrant connection between the university and AROTC, both now have a marginal impact on each other.
AROTC and CIT
The Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program is integral to officer production for the United States Army. AROTC exists as a partnership between universities and the Army, where program members (cadets) take on additional training on top of their college classes in order to commission as second lieutenants into the U.S. Army. Over the past decade, it has served as the largest source of new officers, while also playing a historically significant role by providing officers for every war since its creation by the National Defense Act (1916) in anticipation of World War I.
World War I also introduced mass military training at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (CIT). Over 3,000 students trained at “Camp Carnegie” throughout the war in the basics of soldiering. Moreover, more than 900 CIT students and alumni served in the military, with 44 of these paying the ultimate sacrifice. AROTC arrived at CIT in March 1919, replacing the wartime training measures with a more permanent program. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, AROTC maintained enrollment at around 200 to 300 cadets, representing approximately one-fifth of the undergraduate enrollment at CIT. The program of this period had voluntary enrollment and was all-male, except for a few honorary female officers selected by the program.
AROTC was not without its controversies on campus, clashing with the prominent isolationist sentiment of the 1920s and 1930s. An April 1930 editorial of The Carnegie Tartan argued that “Military training at Carnegie is a farce, part of a well-organized plan of militarists to make the country military-minded.” The debates about the value of AROTC and its specific role on campus persisted through the end of the 1930s, but they never posed a significant challenge to the program’s survival.
In 1940, one year before America entered WWII, 650 cadets were enrolled in CIT’s ROTC program. More notably, from 1916 to 1940, 544 graduates of CIT received commissions into the Army, placing the university fourth among engineering institutes. Yet, World War II and the changes it brought to the country significantly impacted the program’s direction for the next two decades.
The Golden Age
U.S. involvement in the Second World War (1941-1945) reoriented a vast swath of American life towards supporting the national defense. CIT started emphasizing military training and supporting the defense industry. Among the flurry of war activity, AROTC continued to play its part. Many who received reserve commissions in the 1920s and 1930s were called to serve, including in MacArthur’s Army. Enrollment surged in AROTC during the 1942-1943 school year to 820 cadets, partially due to automatic enrollment in the course. However, from mid-1942 through 1945, the program was in a much more limited two-year form.
After the war, benefits from the 1944 G.I. Bill drove many veterans to CIT, creating an experienced and patriotic body of students. The 1948 Selective Service Act re-instituted the draft, and maintaining good standing in an ROTC program served as a way to gain a draft deferment. Moreover, the war’s end brought a post-war boom to CIT, spurring its growth and development as a center of technology. All of these factors contributed to AROTC’s central role on campus by 1951, with it having regular presidential reviews, military balls, and even a specific section in the Tartan entitled The ROTC Guidon.
Many Carnegie Tech cadets served in the Army immediately after graduation, including during the Korean War (1950-1953). Nonetheless, the 1950s could be considered the golden age of the program at CIT. Its prestige and status were unrivaled on campus, it had a sizable membership, and its graduates became leaders in business and politics.
The Vietnam Era: Turbulence and Change
Enrollment remained high at the start of the 1960s, but began to decline as America became more involved in Vietnam. Limited activism was occurring on campus, including a teach-in in 1965 that drew 150 people. Women started to participate in the program more directly in the mid-1960s, with the first CIT Women’s Army Corps cadet joining in 1966. In 1967, the pace of change started to accelerate. Carnegie Tech merged with the Mellon Institute, giving it a strong research backbone and its current name. The United States continued to increase troop counts in Vietnam, making the prospect of post-collegiate service more likely.
The AROTC program started to adapt to the new environment, creating new tactical and social clubs to attract more cadets. Concurrently, the program received more scrutiny from the student population. By October 1968, the Students for a Democratic Society openly challenged the existence of ROTC, arguing that it was a waste of resources and anti-democratic. Activism against AROTC peaked at Carnegie Mellon in 1969, leading to enrollment declining to under 200 cadets for the first time. In 1970, there were a series of protests in response to the Kent State Massacre, culminating with the storming of Army ROTC headquarters on campus.
The storm against AROTC started dissipating as the U.S. exited Vietnam and transitioned away from the draft to an All-Volunteer Force, but there was no reversal in AROTC’s decline on campus. In 1973, women were allowed to join the program as regular cadets due to changes in DoD policy, but they usually made up no more than one-fifth of the cadet population at CMU. However, enrollment continued to decline, eventually leading to its consolidation into the University of Pittsburgh’s AROTC program and its ultimate dissolution.
The Pathway to Dissolution
Despite the grim situation at the end of the Vietnam War, by the late 1970s a new hope in the program looked to be on the horizon. In a 1977 edition of the Carnegie-Mellon Alumni News, the magazine’s director wrote, “ROTC is gaining in popularity again and well on the way to recovery.” Part of the turnaround is attributable to attempts by the program to modernize. The curriculum became more technical and less focused on drill and ceremonies, and the financial benefits of ROTC received greater attention. These factors helped drive enrollment up slightly, with the total fluctuating between 70 and 35 cadets for the rest of the decade.
During the early 1980s, AROTC at CMU benefited from a national surge in ROTC enrollment and increasing patriotism. Army ROTC was also frequently advertised in the Tartan, linking future business success with joining ROTC. However, by 1986 the prospects of the program looked substantially bleaker, and the program began its final descent towards dissolution. On February 12th, 1990, the Secretary of the Army ordered the program’s closure by the end of 1991 for failure to meet Army standards and lack of improvement. AROTC left Carnegie Mellon’s campus later that year, ending over 70 years of Army instruction on campus.
From 1990 onwards, a declining number of AROTC cadets attended CMU. Each decade brought less enrollment, even as the Global War on Terror raged and the Army acknowledged the importance of recruiting at elite institutions in 2010. By 2019, a century after its establishment, AROTC had functionally ceased to exist as either a community or program at Carnegie Mellon.
Despite its disappearance, Army ROTC at Carnegie Mellon left an important legacy. It produced over 2,000 officers for the United States Army, including eight who became general officers. It provided a form of basic military training to over 10,000 Carnegie Mellon graduates and, at times, was the dominant social institution on campus. It spanned the civil-military divide and was one of the original connections between the Army and CMU.
It is difficult to argue that an independent Army ROTC program should come back to Carnegie Mellon University given present challenges. There would first need to be enough people in the program to meet the Cadet Command’s commissioning requirements, and there is no evidence that CMU can meet this expectation. Moreover, reestablishment forces USACC to heavily recruit and subsidize cadets’ tuition at a school that is almost three times more expensive than the neighboring University of Pittsburgh. It would require USACC to treat CMU differently from every other program and sustain this commitment through changing commanders, presidents, and times.
Even if a complete revival is unobtainable, CMU can work to improve the presence of AROTC on campus. A 2018 report by the Center for a New American Security recommended that universities and ROTC programs work to strengthen their relationship through a partnership between ROTC and mentorship/departmental programs and by creating a joint office for the entire military community on campus. Developing joint initiatives along these lines at Carnegie Mellon might help increase the impact of Army ROTC and help span the civil-military divide on campus. Carnegie Mellon has also taken a positive step in this direction recently with the creation of a minor in Military Strategy and International Relations. No matter what course is embarked on by either Carnegie Mellon or Cadet Command, both would benefit from looking back and appreciating their century of shared history.