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Colleges make up for financial loss on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

Janet Babin May 2, 2011

Colleges make up for financial loss on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

Janet Babin May 2, 2011

Tess Vigeland: In December, President Obama signed legislation repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Many elite colleges and universities — especially law schools — had opposed the policy.
And over the years they found ways to get keep military recruiters and groups like the Reserve Officer Training Corps off campus. But only one school actually took a financial hit for doing so. And now, it’s hoping that financial pain will end with the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Marketplace’s Janet Babin reports from Vermont.

Janet Babin: The Barrister’s Bookshop, at tiny Vermont Law School, has got to be the hoppin’-est establishment in sleepy South Royalton, Vt. And it’s only got one noon-time customer buying some essentials for his internship applications.

South Royalton is remote — central Vermont — more mountains and blue sky than buildings and people. And though it appears quiet, this bucolic hamlet is actually a hotbed of civil disobedience. It’s home to one of just two law schools in the nation that has kept up an official decades-long protest against the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Dean Geoffrey Shields at Vermont Law School calls the federal policy discriminatory, and he says the law school is obliged to take a stand.

Geoffrey Shields: The most important role it can take is speaking truth to power. To speak up about values within the institution is a wonderful message to the students.

Initially, lots of law schools agreed. Like Vermont, they banned military recruiters from campuses. Then something changed.

Vermont Law Professor Greg Johnson explains.

Greg Johnson: Congress got wind of this and forwarded an amendment to the Defense Department Authorization Bill, which would prevent schools who refuse to allow the military to recruit on campus from applying for certain funds.

Suddenly, banning military recruiters meant giving up millions in federal money. And just as quickly as they’d kicked them out, schools let military recruiters back in. Harvard Law School, for instance, relented after it realized the university could have lost more than $300 million in federal funds. Dean Shields says the financial stakes were proportionately just as high for Vermont Law School.

Shields: On average it probably cost the law school about $500,000 a year, which for us — with a total budget at that time of about $20 million — was not insignificant.

Shields says computer software upgrades and the IT department suffered the most. But part of what it lost federal grant money, the school did pick up in national street cred for its stance.

Daniel Miller spent four years in the Army. Now he’s in his third year at Vermont Law School, drawn here by the school’s military recruiting ban.

Daniel Miller: It was one of the things that appealed to me about the school. I do believe that it’s a principled stance to take, and indeed the school sacrifices something for that.

Grounds and buildings of Vermont Law School, South Royalton, Vt.

Some students and alumni complained about the policy. But the law school finds itself in the context of the place where it is. The state of Vermont was at the forefront of the women’s right’s movement, and it leads on gay and lesbian issues, too.

Many students here, like Mary Beth Blauser and Danielle Watson, favor the ban.

Danielle Watson: I mean, I think it’s a very brave policy stance.

Mary Beth Blauser: I don’t think it’s something we sit around and talk about weekly, but we all kind of know about it and usually it’s a sense of pride, if anything else.

Vermont Law School is eager to welcome military recruiters back to campus. But all will not be forgiven when the policy ends. Some professors here resent those bigger law schools that ditched the ban and took federal money. Again, here’s Professor Greg Johnson.

Johnson: At the time Vermont Law School banned military from recruiting, our endowment was $20 million. When Harvard Law School allowed the military back on campus, Harvard’s endowment was $30 billion. It seems to me that if we could do it, others could to.

Harvard University’s endowment back then was actually closer to $18 billion, but still far greater than Vermont Law School’s. Before “don’t ask, don’t tell” takes effect, military officials have to certify that it won’t hurt the troops’ ability to fight. That’s expected to happen by summer. When it does happen, Dean Shields will be ready. He’s eyeing a few federal grants that will help fortify the law school’s 2012 budget.

In South Royalton, Vt., I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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