By Randy Dockendorf
VERMILLION — In a reversal of its decision, the U.S. Army will retain the ROTC program at the University of South Dakota and its affiliate at Mount Marty College.
Army officials announced last month the elimination of Reserve Officers Training Corps programs at 13 schools nationwide — including USD — in spring 2015.
“This decision was based on an Army FY11 (fiscal year 2011) study of program viability standards along with geography, demographics and a look at the Army’s recruiting focus area/programs,” according to the USD program’s Facebook page.
But Wednesday, the Army announced it was suspending the closure of those programs and immediately placing them on probationary status.
For LTC Ross Nelson, the reversal came as a welcome surprise. Nelson serves as a USD military science instructor and works with the ROTC programs at both USD and MMC.
“It’s business as usual,” he said. “I was told (Wednesday) night that I can start recruiting again and get as many cadets as I can.”
Nelson clarified the term “probationary” when it comes to the USD program.
“We’re not a bad program, but we didn’t meet the Army’s viable (definition) of 15 commissions a year,” he said. “If I could commission 15 lieutenants a year, then that would relieve our pressure.”
USD has come within one student, which makes the goal very attainable, Nelson said.
While he welcomes the Army’s reversal of its decision, Nelson noted the developments of the past month have made recruiting more difficult.
“We didn’t get a recruitment officer hired for this semester (because of the uncertainty),” he explained. “And it’s a critical time recruiting for next year’s freshman class and anybody transferring. For our colleges, it’s a prime time for recruiting.”
The USD effort will need to double down on its recruiting efforts and get out the word that the program will remain, Nelson said.
“It will hurt during the next couple of years,” he said. “Some people aren’t sure whether USD will have ROTC or not.”
Ironically, Wednesday’s announcement came as Nelson was meeting with USD faculty and student leaders about losing the school’s ROTC program.
Now, Nelson is shifting gears as ROTC enters a new phase. He said he didn’t know all the details on the criteria that will be used to judge the ROTC program.
“The 13 schools identified for closure were put on a 24-month probationary status,” he said. “After one year, (Army officials) will look at the school. If there is improvement after one year, we will come off probation. If not, they will look at us after another year.”
U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) had talked with USD and MMC officials about the ROTC closures. Johnson’s office provided the Press & Dakotan with the copy of a letter it received this week from Army officials concerning the reversal of its decision.
The schools on probation that don’t meet criteria or performance standards after the first year will receive one year’s notice of intent to close the unit.
Programs that show improvement or meet evaluation criteria will be retained on probation for a second year. At the end of the 24-month period, those schools will be re-evaluated and either receive one year’s notice of intent to close the unit or be retained.
The Army has directed a review of the criteria used to recommend the ROTC closures. “Once complete, the evaluation criteria will be used to reassess all ROTC programs nationwide,” the letter said.
USD spokesman Phil Carter said university officials are learning more information about the probationary status. “We are still waiting on the details and criteria for this future assessment,” he said.
MMC President Joseph Benoit said the Army decision means the Catholic college can continue offering a ROTC program not likely otherwise possible.
“This is really exciting news for us,” he said. “At least, in the short term, we can move forward with continuing to recruit students, knowing we do have a military science option on our campus.”
Benoit said he has been notified that Nelson will call him today (Friday) for further discussion.
Through the collaboration with USD, Mount Marty students are offered military science classes on the Yankton campus by USD instructors, Benoit said. The MMC students participate in group exercises and other required activities with the USD students at Vermillion.
The Mount Marty students can receive their Army commission while completing their degrees and earning a minor in military science, Benoit said. MMC has graduated seven commissioned officers since 1997, including one student last spring.
While relatively small at MMC, the ROTC program has remained important for the Catholic college, Benoit said. The program offers leadership training and ties in well with the college’s liberal arts education and strength in areas such as nursing, he said.
Retaining the ROTC program comes at a critical time, as MMC rolls out its new strategic plan and was recently recognized as a military-friendly college, Benoit said. The ROTC program also brings with it another opportunity for usage of the GI Bill for veterans and their dependents, he said.
“It’s been a really good partnership which has allowed us as a small independent college to have a military science option,” he said.
As part of an affiliate program, MMC students remain self-motivated as they take their courses and training away from the other ROTC students at USD, Nelson said.
“Alison Hoffman (of Mount Marty) is one of our top cadets,” he said. “She was recently named the Distinguished Military Student (for the local ROTC program).”
For such a reason, Benoit wants to maintain the ROTC presence at MMC.
“We don’t want this program to go away,” he said. “We want to see this program continue for many, many years.”
Nelson sees the discussion about ROTC as just part of a larger discussion about the nation’s military future, particularly making do with less.
“We won the first battle, but it’s not over,” he said, quoting a colleague’s thoughts on the recent ROTC decision.
However, Nelson believes his ROTC members provide the best example for recruiting and building up the local program.
“Our cadets are my best resource in getting out the story,” he said.
You can follow Randy Dockendorf on Twitter at twitter.com/RDockendorf. Discuss this story at www.yankton.net/.