ROTC’s Response to WikiLeaks Puts Academic Freedom at Risk

ROTC’s Response to WikiLeaks Puts Academic Freedom at Risk

ROTC’s Response to WikiLeaks Puts Academic Freedom at Risk

ROTC memo prohibiting cadets from using WikiLeaks cables for course assignments could impact Stanford’s decision on whether to allow ROTC to return to campus.


A US Army Cadet Command (USACC) memo prohibiting cadets from using classified information found in WikiLeaks cables for course assignments is creating a struggle over academic freedom at colleges and universities. For students at Stanford University, the memo is adding a new dimension to the campus’ deliberations over whether to allow ROTC to return to campus.

At an undergraduate senate meeting on January 25, Samuel Windley, president of the student organization Stanford Says No to War, handed a recent op-ed written by University of San Francisco professor Stephen Zunes to Chairman of the Ad-hoc Committee on the ROTC Ewart Thomas. The op-ed, which referenced the ROTC memo, made Thomas “very concerned.”

Thomas, who convened the meeting to get student input on the question of ROTC returning to campus, referenced the op-ed during the meeting and highlighted how the ROTC was allegedly prohibiting its affiliated students from using leaked US Embassy cables for research papers and presentations. He told the Stanford Daily, “What this looks like is censorship could be imposed on a class that Stanford has a hand in managing.”

Windley thinks this could have an impact on whether the faculty at Stanford invites the ROTC to come back to Stanford. The Stanford faculty takes academic freedom seriously and, as Windley told the Stanford Daily, it is “a slippery slope” when an outside institution is able to determine what course assignments are appropriate or inappropriate.

A document of “talking points” that some institutions of higher education have seen indicates the ROTC thinks the federal law overrides any concerns over academic freedom. It suggests accessing the cables at public colleges or universities is “prohibited.” And, it says "if access is required for a class by university authorities, the student should consult with his Professor of Military Science (PMS)” and the PMS should then “consult with university authorities, suggest alternatives and provide guidance to his or her cadets.”

Danny Colligan, also a member of Stanford Says No to War, believes that students, like their elders in US society, have a wide spectrum of opinion when it comes to WikiLeaks. However, the viewpoints in Stanford’s newsaper have mostly been negative. For example, David Spencer Nelson wrote an op-ed published on January 10 that suggested, “Wikileaks is, frankly, a relatively dumb website. Their mission, to do away with confidentiality in all its forms, is totally impractical and entirely foolish.”

In December 2010, The Daily Pennsylvanian’s Ellie Levitt reported on Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs sending students an email instructing them not to discuss or link to WikiLeaks on social networking sites if they didn’t want to “jeopardize future job opportunities—especially with the federal government.” Levitt found that students were largely unfazed.

Have there been debates about WikiLeaks on your campus? If so, please use the comments field below to let us know. We’d like to publish further student reactions to the release of the cables.

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