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Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC)

The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) is a university-based training program designed to train students to serve as officers in the U.S. military upon graduation. The U.S. Army operates four ROTC battalions in Arkansas, while the U.S. Air Force operates one unit. The U.S. Navy supports ROTC programs, but no such programs operate in the state. Many high schools in the state have Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) programs.

The nation’s federal service academies are tasked with providing trained officers for the military, but these institutions cannot train enough graduates to lead units during times of conflict. The first military unit at an institution of higher education in the United States was created at Norwich University in Vermont in 1819. Military training was included in the curriculum of antebellum institutions of higher education in the state, including the Arkansas Military Institute and St. Johns’ College. Military tactics were a required course of instruction for institutions that received support from the 1862 Morrill Act, which gave federal land grants for institutions of higher learning.

The University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) was established as the state’s first land-grant institution, and military courses were taught at the university, with the male students required to wear military uniforms. Military officers were sometimes assigned by the War Department to direct the unit, but drills continued even when the institution did not have an officer assigned. The ROTC unit was established at the university in 1916. With the entrance of the United States into World War I the next year, the ROTC unit was replaced on campus by the Student Army Training Corps (SATC). The members of the SATC unit joined the army as privates and received uniforms, housing, a salary, and free classes offered by the university and the army. At the end of their training, students would be commissioned as second lieutenants. About 500 men served in the SATC unit, which opened in October 1918.

With the end of the war on November 11, 1918, many of the members of the unit began to push for discharges, and by December, the unit was disbanded. Other SATC units operated at the First District Agricultural School (now Arkansas State University—ASU) in Jonesboro (Craighead County), Arkansas College (now Lyon College) in Batesville (Independence County), and Hendrix College in Conway (Faulkner County), and a unit was shared by Henderson-Brown College (now Henderson State University—HSU) in Arkadelphia (Clark County), and Ouachita Baptist College (now Ouachita Baptist University—OBU) in Arkadelphia. The SATC program exposed many students to college life, and some remained at their respective institutions after discharge to complete a degree. None of the students in the program in Arkansas received a commission or saw action overseas, although many died in the influenza outbreak that swept the world in 1918–1919.

ROTC was reestablished in 1919 at the University of Arkansas, and over the next two decades, enrollment in the program grew. Cadets received a small monthly stipend, allowing many to remain at the university during the Great Depression. The program continued to operate with reduced enrollment during World War II, and thousands of soldiers trained in other units on the campus. In 1949, the Air Corps branch of the ROTC unit separated from the Army ROTC branches, and Air Force ROTC was officially established as a standalone unit. At the conclusion of the war, enrollment in the program increased again. Two years of participation in the program were required for all male students at UA, and students interested in obtaining a commission completed two additional years of training. After several years of discussions and research, the university decided to drop the compulsory requirement and allow all four years of both the army and air force programs to be voluntary.

What is now ASU in Jonesboro received an SATC unit during World War I. While the institution served as a regional high school before the war, only institutions that offered college-level coursework were authorized to host units. The board of trustees added junior college coursework in order to secure the unit, changing the role of the institution. At the conclusion of the war, the unit disbanded. In 1923, the campus became the home of a National Guard unit, Battery C, 206th Coast Artillery, Anti-Aircraft. Most of the enlisted members of the unit were students, while the officers were faculty and staff members at ASU. ROTC joined the National Guard unit on campus in 1936, and male students were required to participate in the unit during their first two years of college. In January 1941, the National Guard unit was federalized and it departed from ASU’s campus. The enrollment in ROTC dropped during the war, and the upper-level courses were phased out entirely due to the low enrollment. Three army training units operated on campus during the war. At the conclusion of the war, the entire ROTC program was reestablished on ASU’s campus. The National Guard unit and ROTC shared an armory, which was also used as a science building, until a new armory was constructed in 1956. In 1971, the compulsory two years of training were dropped, and women were allowed to join the unit. First Lieutenant George Sisler, a 1964 graduate, posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his service in the Vietnam War.

The University of Central Arkansas (UCA) in Conway received an ROTC unit in 1967, beginning operations the following year. Housed in Meadors Hall, the unit became voluntary in 1970. Enrollment in the unit fell over the years as it did at all institutions in the state, but the program at UCA continued to produce officers.

What is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) also received a unit in 1967, with the program beginning operations the following year. The establishment of the unit fulfilled part of the institution’s land-grant mission to offer coursework in military science. Women joined the program in 1972, with the first to complete the program and receive a commission graduating in 1978. Lieutenant General Aundre Piggee became the highest-ranking graduate of the program.

Arkansas Tech University in Russellville (Pope County) received an ROTC unit in 1952. The first two years of coursework were mandatory for all male students. In 1970, the requirement was dropped, and the program became voluntary. In 1973, the unit began to accept students from the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville (Johnson County).

Henderson State University offered required courses in military training soon after it opened as Arkadelphia Methodist College. Multiple efforts to secure an ROTC unit were rebuffed until 1936. Two years of training were required of all male students at HSU until 1971.

What is now Ouachita Baptist University was selected to receive an ROTC unit in 1919 after the SATC unit on campus was disbanded. It was one of two units in the state at the time along with UA. Enrollment and standards remained high between the world wars, with the unit at OBU consistently being recognized as a distinguished military college and beating much larger institutions in military competitions. During World War II, enrollment in the unit was reduced, but at the conclusion of the war it rebounded. The faculty voted to end the required second year of training for all male students in 1972, but it remained mandatory for freshmen.

What is now Southern Arkansas University (SAU) in Magnolia (Columbia County) received an ROTC unit in 1972 after years of requests, which had been denied due to the low enrollment at the institution. With many colleges ending their relationships with the program due to the Vietnam War, the university was approved to add the program in an effort to increase the number of commissioned officers available for service.

In the early 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, several ROTC units in the state were threatened with closure due to producing only a small number of graduates. Units at HSU, OBU, Arkansas Tech, SAU, and UCA were all scheduled to be closed in 1990. Each institution challenged the move, however, and most were able to postpone the closure for several years. Ultimately, the closures took effect.

Some cadets were able to attend classes at nearby institutions that still offered ROTC programs. Cadets from UCA attended classes at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA Little Rock) for several semesters before the unit in Conway was restarted. By 2000, detachments had been restarted at HSU, OBU, and Arkansas Tech.

By 2017, the U.S. Army was operating a battalion based at UA in Fayetteville that also enrolls students at John Brown University, NorthWest Arkansas Community College, the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, and Northeastern State University in Oklahoma. A battalion at UAPB supports a unit shared by HSU and OBU. The UCA battalion also enrolls students at Arkansas Tech, Philander Smith College, Hendrix College, Central Baptist College, UA Little Rock, and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. ASU also supports a battalion with additional students from Arkansas State University–Beebe and Williams Baptist College. Students at Harding University are eligible to participate in the program at ASU–Beebe. UA hosts the only Air Force ROTC unit in the state, with that program also enrolling students at John Brown University, Northwest Arkansas Community College, and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.  

For additional information:
Arrington, Michael. Ouachita Baptist University: The First 100 Years. Little Rock: August House, 1985.

Dew, Lee A. The ASU Story: A History of Arkansas State University, 1909–1967. Jonesboro: Arkansas State University Press, 1968.

Dunivan, Major James. “A Symbiotic Alliance: Arkansas State College and the United States Army, 1935–1950.” Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies 37 (April 2006): 14–28.

LeFlar, Robert Allen. The First 100 Years: Centennial History of the University of Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Foundation, 1972.

Sesser, David. The School with a Heart: Henderson State University at 125. Covington, GA: Bookhouse Group, 2015.

Willis, James F. Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909–2009. Magnolia: Southern Arkansas University Foundation, 2009.

David Sesser
Henderson State University

Last Updated 3/9/2018

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