BOSTON — Harvard University, following a change in U.S. military policy toward gays, is welcoming the Reserve Officer Training Corps program back to campus 41 years after banishing it amid dissent over the Vietnam War.
The about-face by Harvard comes just months after a decision by Congress to repeal the military ban on gays serving openly, a policy that had led the university to vote to keep the ROTC away.
On Friday, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus are scheduled to sign an agreement that will establish the Naval ROTC's formal presence on the Cambridge, Mass., campus, the university announced Thursday.
Under the agreement, a director of Naval ROTC at Harvard will be appointed, and the university will resume funding the program, which will be given office space and access to athletic fields and classrooms.
Harvard cadets will still train, as they have for years, as part of a consortium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also located in Cambridge, just outside Boston. Currently, 20 Harvard students participate in ROTC, including 10 involved in Naval ROTC.
Harvard is the first elite school to agree to rescind its ban since December, when Congress issued its decision about the military policy on gays.
Faust said the "renewed relationship" affirms the armed forces' vital role in "securing our freedoms."
"It broadens the pathways for students to participate in an honorable and admirable calling and in doing so advances our commitment to both learning and service," she said in a press release.
Mabus said the agreement would make the military better and the nation stronger because "with exposure comes understanding, and through understanding comes strength."
Harvard and several other prominent schools, including Stanford, Yale and Columbia, had kept the Vietnam-era ROTC ban in place following the war because they viewed the military policy forbidding gays from serving openly as discriminatory. The 17-year-old policy requires soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to keep their homosexuality a secret or face dismissal.
But after Congress cleared the way for the repeal of the so-called "don't ask, don't tell," policy, Faust said she'd work toward ROTC's return.
Under the agreement to be signed Friday, "full and formal" recognition of ROTC at Harvard comes once the repeal takes effect, expected later this year. Full repeal comes 60 days after President Barack Obama, the U.S. defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that lifting the ban won't hurt the military's ability to fight. The Army is training the force in the new law, and officials said they hope to be finished by mid-August.
ROTC was founded in 1916 to ensure educated men were well-represented in the military. Students receive scholarship money in return for agreeing to military service after graduation. In 1926, Harvard became one of the original six schools to partner with Naval ROTC.
ROTC exited numerous campuses during the Vietnam War under pressure from student protesters who said the military's presence on campus was the same as endorsing the war.
Harvard voted to withhold academic credit from ROTC in 1969, and the program left the campus a few years later. Harvard then defunded the program in 1995, saying "don't ask, don't tell" violated its non-discrimination policies.
Training for Harvard cadets has since been paid for by anonymous donors, and some have criticized Harvard's policy as a disgraceful lack of support for military men and women risking their lives in the country's defense. Others said it was a needed stand against discrimination.
On Thursday, Harvard said it's working toward renewing ties with ROTC programs associated with other military branches. It's also starting a committee to assist with implementing ROTC at Harvard, which will be headed by engineering professor Kevin "Kit" Parker, an Army major who has served three tours in Afghanistan.
Before Faust, former Harvard president Larry Summers spoke in support of ROTC, saying "every Harvard student" should be proud Harvard students were committed to ROTC, but the campus ban remained with "don't ask, don't tell" in place.
A spokesman for OutServe, an underground network of gay and lesbian active duty military member, said Thursday it was "proud to welcome Harvard back to the officer training community."
"The more the military reflects the full diversity of our society — including Harvard — the more it can support our values around the world," said spokesman Jonathan Hopkins, a veteran of three combat tours.