WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- With the fall semester busily under way at colleges and universities across the United States, some of the most prestigious among them are charting a new course with the return of ROTC programs to their campuses.
ROTCs are making a comeback at Ivy League schools after being banned from many of them for decades -- first in objection to the Vietnam War, and more recently because of the now-repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law that banned gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
With both objections now history, ROTC programs are returning to more campuses, including the Ivies.
The University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Cornell universities and Dartmouth College never dissolved their long relationships with ROTC. Cornell hosts Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC detachments. Princeton and Dartmouth sponsor Army ROTC. Penn has a Naval ROTC program.
More of their sister schools are following suit. Harvard, Yale and Columbia universities approved the reintroduction of ROTC programs to their campuses earlier this year.
Harvard President Drew Faust called Naval ROTC's return to the Cambridge, Mass., campus "an important new chapter in the long and storied history of military service by members of the Harvard community."
At Yale, university and military officials agreed to establish Naval and Air Force ROTC programs next year. University President Richard Levin welcomed the return, citing the contributions the graduates will make to the military, and the opportunities the new relationship will offer for those who choose to serve.
Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley, who joined Levin on Sept. 12 in signing an agreement to establish an Air Force ROTC detachment at Yale in the fall of 2012, called the decision a "win-win."
"First, a permanent presence for Air Force ROTC will make it easier for Yale students who are interested in military service to access ROTC education and training ceremonies," he said. "Second, a Yale presence will give the Air Force a way to connect and engage with some of the brightest and most diverse students in America."
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus signed similar agreements to establish Naval ROTC detachments: in March with Harvard, in April with Columbia, and in May with Yale.
In announcing the Columbia University Naval ROTC program, Mabus called the decision a renewal of a long and rich history between the university and the Navy.
"Columbia's tremendous support to our men and women in uniform returning from the recent wars is overwhelming, as are the growing numbers of veterans who are woven into the fabric of this great institution," he said. "The return of Naval ROTC to campus will only serve to enhance and strengthen our institutions and contribute to the success of this great country."
Other elite schools appear to agree. For example, the faculty senate at Stanford University voted in April to invite ROTC to return to its Southern California campus. University officials reportedly are in "serious discussions" with the military branches about setting up an on-campus ROTC program, but no agreements have yet been reached.
Meanwhile, Brown University in Providence, R.I., the last Ivy League institution to ban ROTC from its campus, is studying the issue. University President Ruth Simmons invited discussion on inviting ROTC back to the campus before her report to the university corporation this month.
Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a longtime educator himself, was a staunch advocate of restoring ROTC to the nation's elite schools. During his visit in September 2010 to North Carolina's Duke University, which sponsors three ROTC programs, Gates called for other prestigious universities to follow Duke's example.
"Over the past generation, many commentators have lamented the absence of ROTC from the Ivy League and other selective universities -- institutions that used to send hundreds of graduates into the armed forces, but now struggle to commission a handful of officers every year," he told the Duke assembly.
Gates applauded efforts to restore military recruiting and officer training programs to these schools, and encouraged some of the country's most gifted students to consider joining them.
"A return of ROTC back to some of these campuses will not do much good without the willingness of our nation's most gifted students to step forward -- men and women such as you," he told the Duke students.
For at least one Ivy League graduate, her alma mater's decision to reinstitute ROTC came just a tad too late.
Last month, Mary McDonald sat alongside dozens of other young men and women at the Baltimore Military Entrance Processing Station doing final preparations before shipping off to Army basic training.
With a Columbia University degree under her belt, along with an internship at the prestigious Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, McDonald knew she had a lot of career choices. But at age 24, she had no doubt about what she wants -- and said she's not alone among Ivy League students and alumni. "I can't think of anything better than to lead soldiers, period," she said.
Her goal, she explained, is to complete basic training, get accepted into Officer Candidate School and ultimately, become a military intelligence officer.
Like most of today's recruits, McDonald said the 9/11 attacks shaped her world view and her decision to join the military.
She was a high school freshman in Hastings-on-Hudson outside New York City when terrorists launched the attacks. McDonald recalled that she was in biology class, hearing loudspeakers call students by name to the principal's office and TVs being rolled into the classrooms.
Looking back, McDonald expressed regret that her generation was considered too young to be a part of the national response.
"We weren't asked to do anything," she said. "So now, I want to make a contribution. My generation is very eager to serve. We just want an opportunity."
The 9/11 attacks "very directly affected my world view," McDonald said. And events under way now, including military operations around the world, she said, will shape America's foreign policy for the foreseeable future.
"I want to be at the center of it," McDonald said. "I want to deploy 100 percent."
(American Forces Press Service photo editor and research assistant Lisa Stafford contributed to this article.)