Tags: Joan Johnson-Freese
Almost a year ago, I posted a guest blog here in response to a blog post by “Steeljaw Scribe” about an article on Professional Military Education (PME) I had written for AOL.Defense. Since then, I’ve written an article for Orbis and a book on PME, (forthcoming in October 2012), in which I’ve continued to advocate open discussion as a necessary step toward improving one of America’s most valuable assets: Professional Military Education. A year later the good news is that discussion has flourished; the bad news is that for the most part it’s business as usual in PME.
The initial response from many readers and commenters to even mild suggestions that the academic rigor and practices in PME could be improved was to dismiss them as the ramblings of one or two disgruntled or failed academics, or those who just “didn’t get” that PME “is different.” There was a time when those caustic responses might have shut down the debate, but in the era of new media, many individuals– even if under a pen name or after they leave PME — nonetheless continued to express their views. The ongoing discussion confirms that there are widespread issues common to PME in general that are not limited to one or two institutions, or a few grumpy faculty.
Take, for example, the continuing problem of disempowered faculty. In conjunction with my article in Orbis, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) and the Reserve Officers Association sponsored a panel in Washington, DC in April 2012. While the panelists agreed on a number of issues – including the importance of PME – key differences of opinion emerged on the role of student evaluations on the renewal of faculty contracts, and the need for a tenure or tenure-like system to allow faculty to instill academic rigor into the program without fear of reprisals from students or administrators.
An animated exchange followed between panel member and former Army War College Commandant Major General Robert Scales, writing at Tom Ricks’ blog, and Naval War College professor Tom Nichols, writing at his own blog, The War Room. It became clear from that exchange, especially when considered in conjunction with previous contributions from Dan Hughes about the Air War College, Howard Wiarda about NDU, and myself regarding the NWC, that faculty fears of reprisals are not limited to one institution, but are widespread, as even one of General Scales’s own faculty from the Army War College confirmed when Gen. Scales asked him publicly to comment
Curriculum has also been the source of considerable discussion. Former Air War College Professor Gary Schaub and Army Command and General Staff College Professor John Kuehn, among others, have focused on curricular issues in their contributions to the PME discussion, with Schaub rightly noting that War Colleges attempt to cover all so much material in a ten month program that they become “at times, a mile wide and an inch deep.” Kuehn differentiated between the quality of the teaching faculty and the multitudes of others who hold the title of professor at many PME institutions, and goes on to say about CJCS: “One problem is an out of control curriculum that the faculty, oddly, have little control over their own delivery and content.”
Much of this debate was initially sparked by Tom Ricks’ call to close the Air War College, with the Air Force’s senior PME institution drawing the most fire for its lax academic practices and standards.
But Maxwell has avoided further attention lately. Now, the National Defense University (NDU) and the Joint Forces Staff College (JFSC), which is a component of NDU, are uncomfortably in the spotlight. Ricks, at his blog The Best Defense offers his explanation for the problems at NDU, and they sound much like the criticisms made by other PME faculty about their own institutions: “Part of the problem with the place,” Ricks wrote, “is that the generals and admirals overseeing the place don’t know much about how to run a university, and wouldn’t know intellectual firepower from a day-old dud.”
The problem actually runs much deeper than that. At NDU, and at PME institutions generally, the curriculum is the responsibility not just of the President or Commandant but administrators two, three, even four levels deep, who largely tend to be military retirees or civilians with little or no academic experience. These administrators in turn are supervised by military service or Joint Staff bureaucrats with potentially even less experience relevant to education. As Robert Goldich wrote of NDU: “What all this suggests to me is that nobody in high places, from the current CJCS on down, seems to attach particular importance to NDU, both its PME institutions and its research components.”
What prompted Ricks and others to turn their attention to NDU was the departure of highly-respected practitioner-scholar Hans Binnendijk from the faculty. Binnendijk, a former White House advisor and eminent scholar, left for Johns Hopkins, according to Ricks, out of his “unhappiness with [NDU’s] decline as an intellectual institution.” NDU, though not the academic flagship of PME (that honor goes to the Naval War College), has held a high reputation partly based on its graduates, partly on the number of high-level speakers it attracts because of its location, and partly because it has included some stellar faculty on its rosters.
But like all PME institutions, NDU is large, with many missions and consequently many faculty positions. Some of those faculty have been top scholars and practitioners who maintain an active teaching and professional life. But NDU has also long been a haven for senior government bureaucrats who find themselves out of a job when the political winds change in Washington, like many other think-tanks in the capitol region. The difference, of course, is that NDU is an educational institution funded by the taxpayers. So, now, as a “Puzzled Professor” at NDU reports, the J-7 arm of the Pentagon (which oversees NDU) is swinging the budget ax its way. While there is fat that can be trimmed, especially among the non-teaching positions which are little more than parachutes for ex-bureaucrats, the question remains whether those cuts are being made with an eye toward encouraging or even protecting existing academic standards. This seems doubtful, given the circumstances surrounding Binnendijk’s departure.
Finally, a recent scandal at the Joint Services Staff College is far more disturbing. Earlier this year, the Joint Staff conducted a review after Wired broke a story about an elective being taught at JFSC that was, to say the least, highly critical of Islam. It not only depicted the US as at war with Islam, but suggested abandoning traditional rules of war and adopting extreme, Hiroshima-like measures against Islamic opponents The review castigated the course (which was cancelled), and cited “institutional failures in oversight and judgment” and “lack of leadership on the course. ”
That’s putting it mildly. What happened, apparently, was that an unqualified instructor was teaching the course, supervised by similarly unqualified superiors. As NWC professor and counterterrorism expert John Schindler wrote recently: “At JFSC, an Army lieutenant colonel took it upon himself to teach an elective on Islam which devolved into discussions of how to solve the ‘problem’ of Islam via nuclear weapons against cities. At all our PME institutions, the teaching of electives is in the hands of individuals who sometimes have more passion for a topic than knowledge. The real question is: Was anyone at JFSC competent to judge if this Army officer was capable of teaching a “graduate-level” course on Islam. And if not, why not?”
Schindler’s answer to his own question is worth considering: “PME and DoD have long overindulged – and overpaid – self-styled ‘experts’ who lack any real scholarly background in what they are talking about.” This is in part due to the disconnect between academia and the military (for which there is plenty of blame to go around), but also because PME does little either to create, or to vet, its own ‘experts’ on subjects.”
Will any of this, from the loss of a respected faculty member like Binnendijk to the appalling content of the JFSC course, change things? Not yet.
The Army War College is apparently struggling right now with development of, as a faculty member there put it, a “sane” policy that would – obviously – stay within legal parameters and still allow faculty, military and civilian, the latitude to work toward expected levels of professional achievement within the academic community, including the ability to write and publish books and articles. (That is, to do the things that scholars and teachers normally do that develop and mark them as experts in a field) The Naval War College, to its credit, has encouraged those activities as a matter of policy for many years. But there is still a problem at all PME institutions of getting administrators to understand, tolerate and perhaps even embrace at least some of the standards and expectations of civilian scholarship for the purposes of institutional recognition, faculty recruitment and retention, and better fulfillment of their obligation to the students and the Nation.
And progress is always tenuous. Over the years, there have been repeated attempts in Newport to weaken faculty contracts, usually through the insertion of fuzzy language that seems to set up wickets for renewal but which many faculty read as: “if somebody in the administration doesn’t like you.” And while NWC has always prided itself as being a bastion of academic freedom, some administrators have chafed over their inability to control the faculty’s scholarship and public outreach — which again are part of the normal activities of scholars in any community, including defense studies.
While some of these incidents are disappointing (or even shocking), they should not be unexpected as long as academic and educational experts are not included in the management of PME institutions. For example, were academics included among the reviewers of the JFSC investigation? Why were there no academics included on the Navy Executive Advisory Boards to study significant innovative/transformative issues within the DON, including in PME? The message from the top is clear: there is no reason to include those with scholarly experience and a professionally active academic life at the individual institutions if the Joint and service staffs feel no need to do so at the national level.
As long as PME is run by arbitrary rules toward fulfilling process requirements — and quite frankly, toward supporting quietly-run second-career jobs programs — rather than toward educating students with the best faculty possible, little will change. These problems are not the result of a “failure of leadership,” a phrase which is always the throwaway defense employed by people who would rather not face these issues. Rather, they are systemic problems which will remain unaddressed so long as they remain unacknowledged.
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