The U.S. Army announced last week it is shuttering the 93-year-old Reserve Officer Training Corps program at NDSU, which also serves Concordia and MSUM students.
With 72 enrolled cadets, including eight from MSUM, the “Bison Battalion” is one of the 13 programs out of 273 nationwide that will be closing in spring 2015. About half of the cadets will graduate by then, but the other half will need to chose whether to leave the program, which prepares college students to be Army officers, or transfer to another school. The nearest options are at the University of North Dakota, St. Johns University, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and Minnesota State University, Mankato.
“This action is not a reflection of either the quality of your program or the outstanding cadets you have produced,” Thomas R. Lamont, assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs wrote in a letter to NDSU president Dean Bresciani.
Lt. Col. Ted Preister moved to town two months ago for what he expected to be a three-year assignment leading the Bison Battalion. He now has a new mission – winding down the program.
“We are going to downsize the Army, so like every other element of the government, the Army is looking to economize,” Preister said. “It’s not going to be popular whatever schools are targeted.”
The North Dakota National Guard is going to fight the decision, said NDSU military science professor Ryan Schulz, a program graduate and one of five ROTC employees who will need to find new jobs or retire if the program closes. He called the closure “mindboggling.”
“We push out strong officers,” Schulz said.
MSUM president Edna Szymanki was visibly upset Friday after learning about the pending closure.
“We’re not going without a fight,” she said. “The reason this is so important for many students is military service is one of the few ways some are able to access higher education.”
“Some of the best cadets over there have been ours,” said Szymanksi, singling out MSUM and Bison Battalion alumnus Corey Arnold, who last year was ranked 18th out of more than 5,600 cadets on the national Order of Merit List.
But Preister said he spoke with the general in charge of the U.S. Army Cadet Command and “he doesn’t believe there’s any way to change this decision, so fighting would be pointless.”
Since the decision was made at the Army Department level, it will be difficult to reverse, Preister said.
“I’m in the Army – I do what I’m told, and I’ve received an order to close the program,” he said. “And so I am progressing under the assumption that the program will be closed.”
Dave Bellefeuille, director of higher education veterans programs for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, provided a statement Friday on behalf of Commissioner Larry Shellito, a retired major general and MSUM alumnus: “The Commissioner of Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs is sad to hear that the long-standing Tri-College ROTC program will be terminated. ROTC is an important stepping-stone for our young men and women to obtain higher education and become leaders in the armed forces. The impact of one closure will be felt through the three institutions and many future ROTC candidates. The Commissioner urges individuals to contact their local federal representatives.”
In a statement, North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp lauded the Bison Battalion and vowed to “work with North Dakota and Minnesota senators to push back on this decision, and make sure the Army is aware of the unique challenges ROTC programs in rural communities like North Dakota face, which make it more difficult to hit national standards.”
“The program particularly helps low-income students afford a college education through military service,” Heitkamp said. “It’s disappointing the Army decided to cut this program.”
Cadets learned of the decision Thursday night and said they were surprised that their program, noted for having a high percentage of cadets ranked in the top 20 percent in the nations, was on the list.
“We’re kind of in shock right now,” said MSUM criminal justice junior and Bison Battalion cadet Cody Holte. “We’re not exactly sure what to think.”
Fellow cadet, MSUM criminal Justice senior Justin Johnson, said it doesn’t make sense that the NDSU program was targeted since the Army’s force reduction is trying to focus on maintaining quality.
“That is what hurt when they decided to close NDSU,” he said, “because there are schools around that nation that aren’t closing that we totally outperform.”
BY BRYCE HAUGEN