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Opinion | Deborah Lee James

Harvard and the Air Force, together again

The Harvard campus.Steven Senne/AP

Friday marks a return of Air Force ROTC to the grounds of Harvard University, the oldest higher learning institution in the United States — and it couldn’t come at a more significant time.

ROTC left Ivy League institutions during the Vietnam War, and as college campuses welcome back the military, we are reminded of the importance of having a presence at the nation’s most influential colleges and universities.

Why does the “Long Crimson Line” matter to the United States Air Force? It matters because diversity of thought, ideas, cultures, and talent is not just a Harvard trait, but a characteristic of our nation since its founding — and something vital to a successful and innovative Air Force.


Since the Vietnam War and the advent of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, however, Harvard and many other institutions in the Northeast have lacked a military presence. However, it wasn’t just the institutions who allowed this to happen, but also the Department of Defense.

As a result, officer training detachments shifted west and south, leaving behind an institution which had produced many of the nation’s greatest civilian and military leaders, as well as 18 Medal of Honor recipients.

Recently, the military has shown its willingness to reevaluate and change as it seeks to respond to complex global challenges such as those presented by China, Russia, and Daesh.

In only the last six years “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been repealed, all combat positions have been opened to women, and Department of Defense leaders are actively discussing allowing transgender persons to serve openly. From my point of view, anyone who is qualified and capable of accomplishing the job should be able to serve. These steps indicate a military that understands our society has a renewed dedication to the very foundation of this nation: diversity.


Certainly the renewed collaboration is vital for the military. Just three weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter visited MIT, where he announced an initiative to develop high-tech fibers and textiles to aid in our national defense. This was part of a larger tour of technology centers, and it highlighted a consortium of academic institutions and private-sector companies focused on innovation. Additionally, last summer marked the launch of a pilot program known as Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx, “to cultivate and facilitate a lasting relationship with new innovators.” The hope is to expand beyond Silicon Valley, building the Defense Department’s relationships with nontraditional entities to foster diversity of thought and embrace emerging technologies.

Last month I was also in Texas at Joint Base San Antonio announcing the Air Force’s alternative energy initiative called the “Forward Operating Base of the Future,” which uses solar arrays, advanced batteries, and micro-grid techniques to reduce reliance on diesel used in powering a base. And on Friday, I will join Governor Charlie Baker and US Representative Niki Tsongas as we participate in an innovation forum with nondefense companies aimed at expanding our access to America’s intellectual capital. This inaugural forum will connect cutting-edge companies and the Air Force to generate innovation that meets the complex global challenges of today and tomorrow.

Diversity is not just about our platforms and technology, of course, but also the most valuable asset of our nation, its people. For our country to remain a beacon of freedom and progress, we must continue to seek and embrace the intellect across America, both in and out of uniform.


Our Air Force and our nation need the contributions that ROTC cadets offer, and we are proud to help them make the transition from Harvard Crimson to Air Force Blue.

Deborah Lee James is the secretary of the United States Air Force.