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Congressional hardball trumps SSU policy on military recruiting

By Bruce Robinson

THE BIBLICAL Solomon is revered as a wise and judicial leader, but his congressional namesake is being denounced as the opposite by some outspoken members of the campus community at Sonoma State University. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., is the author of the "Solomon Amendment," a federal law stipulating that any college campus that bars military recruiters will lose all federal funds for programs and students at that campus.

"The U.S. government is forcing us to accept recruiters or lose all U.S. government aid to the school, including student aid," objected Rick Luttman, a mathematics professor at SSU, who likens the congressional strong-arming to terrorism.

"A terrorist takes hostages--innocent third parties--and threatens them in hopes that some other party will care more about them than the terrorist does. Isn't that the principle?" he explained. "That's what Congress did here. It's the institution that has the policy, but it was the students who were threatened."

The local university has a long-standing anti-discrimination policy for businesses that come on campus to recruit potential employees. The U.S. armed services have thus been blocked from recruiting on campus, owing to their discriminatory policies regarding homosexuals. But that changed abruptly with the passage of the Solomon Amendment early last year.

The law states that "no funds" of the federal government, specifically including funds for student aid, will be disbursed to any institution of higher education that has "a policy of denying entry to campuses or access to students for purposes of military recruiting." Schools with "a long-standing policy of pacifism based on historical religious affiliation" are exempted.

"Because the $8 million that the university receives was threatened, we felt we had no choice but to reverse our policy and allow the military to recruit here," said Luttman. "Personally, I think that the tactics that the government has used here are deplorable."

He's not alone. A resolution condemning the Solomon Amendment was passed unanimously March 12 by the SSU Academic Senate. It served notice to military recruiters that "notwithstanding the legal right which they have by these unethical means obtained to secure access to Sonoma State students, they should have no illusions that they are welcome on this campus."

The vote on the resolution was timed in anticipation of a recruiting team's March 16 visit. Additional recruiting dates are set for April 7 and 21.

LUTTMAN'S fervent opposition to the amendment and the recruiters "really raised awareness of the situation that Sonoma's been put in," says Aaron Pava, president of the Associated Students of SSU and a leader of the Non-Violent Civil Disobedience Organization on campus. The latter group set up a table of their own just a few feet away from the trio of uniformed Army officers, circulating copies of the faculty resolution and anti-enlistment materials, and "basically counteracting the measures of the Solomon Act," Pava added.

But during the lunch hour on March 16, when the grassy central area outside the student union was most populous, the biggest crowd arced around the three recruiters, who faced reactions that ranged from hostile rants to pointed debates. "We knew this was going to happen, so we brought some extra people," admitted Staff Sgt. Ricky Snow, who said the recruiters did not get any special training for the situation.

"My job here is to get the army exposure," Snow noted, "and I got more exposure here today than I've gotten in the whole year that I've been out here." Snow said he had been making twice-a-month visits to the campus during the fall semester, but Luttman and others said they were unaware of those prior recruiting trips.

A FEW OF THE students who passed by were adamantly anti-military, but others showed more tolerance. One even suggested that excluding the recruiters was also a form of discrimination. "If it was just a free-speech issue, I'd agree with you," replied sociology Professor Peter Phillips. "But this is an employment issue. They employ 2 million people, and in doing so they do not employ openly gay and lesbian people. We're making it very clear the Faculty Senate does not welcome them here because they are a discriminatory employer. But in fact they can be here because they blackmailed all the students. You'll be cut off on your financial aid if they can't have this table here."

Capt. Jessica Smith, commander of the North Bay Recruiting Company, did her best to sidestep questions about the army's "Don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" policy. "Ladies and gentlemen, I hire gays and lesbians in the U.S. Army," she stated. "That is my mission, to hire young men and women who are qualified for service in the army. Their sexual preference is irrelevant to me."

When pressed, Smith conceded that anyone identifying oneself as homosexual could be accepted and enlisted only if a waiver was approved by officers "three echelons above me." But she insisted that not all gays are automatically rejected. "My experience with homosexuals in the army is, they have not all been discharged if they came forward and said they were gay."

Luttman, however, remained skeptical. "It's true, technically, that you can be gay and stay in the army. It's just that if you engage in any gay activity, you'll be thrown out." Despite the official policy, which Luttman charged "is erratically administered," hundreds of gays are discharged from the military every year "despite their honorable records of service, despite their desire to continue to serve, simply because someone suspects they are gay.

"This is particularly serious for women," he added, "because if a woman refuses sexual advances from male colleagues, the first thing that happens is she is accused of being lesbian."

The debate is expected to intensify April 7, when the Sonoma County Peace and Justice Center plans to join in the anti-recruiting campaign.

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From the March 19-25, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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