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.

Posted by Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese in Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy

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  • A DoD Professor

    The last BRAC neglected to look at the oversupply of schools in the DoD: service academies, war colleges, ICAF, NDU, NPS, AFIT, USMC University, JFSC, on and on… really, how many colleges does one organization need? We could shut half of them down and not impact the effectiveness of DoD one bit.

  • S.S. Brown

    As a grateful alum of the academic flagship of PME I’ve been following the discussion regarding the “crisis” in PME somewhat closely. What saddens me most is that “business is usual.”
    During my time in Newport I was struck by the many layers of administrators acting more like junior high school staff than like military professionals charged with the stewardship of an accredited institution of higher education, which also happens to be a national asset.

    I was shocked at the many senior students who would “fleet up” to be “instructors” for the junior classes simply because they were “good old boys/girls,” not because they had any spectacular expertise or experience to offer. (Small wonder we end up with the likes of “Islamophobia 101” at the Joint Forces Staff College.)

    I was scandalized at the numbers of military officers who, virtually, were students one day, active duty faculty the next, and retired administrators the next!

    No doubt, higher education across the board is beset with all sorts of issues of late (e.g., faculty being removed at the whim of administrators, the spiraling costs of education, the proliferation of programs of dubious worth, some “non-profits” milking service members of their GI Bill benefits, the questionable value of some online programs, etc). I am sure many of these issues will resolve over time.

    However, our War Colleges are called to be a breed apart – and I believe in many respects they are. But these graduate faculties need and deserve singular attention from Congress and the senior military leaders responsible for running them. Without that special care these institutions will further devolve into the special projects pandering to the special interests of a very few they have become.

    Yes, I am grateful for my time at the Naval War College. I am even more grateful by the faculty and staff who are calling our attention to the dire need for reform of our PME system.

  • BJ Armstrong

    I think it might be time to readdress the core of PME, and the purposes it serves. John Kuehn has pointed out the difference between training and education, and the place for each in the system. In the July issue of Proceedings I look back at PME’s history, and the original NWC course…the summer course…and wonder if there’s a way toward the future through our past methods.

  • There is a lot to agree with here. But, the silver bullet “there are not enough professional academics involved,” well that’s a problem. If there are any institutions that have done a worse job on PME than the war colleges that clearly is the professional academy where serious research on national security public policy, strategy, and military history is at a nadir.

    The last thing we should do is turn the prison over to the mafia.

    I have advocated opening up senior PME to universities…under the the notion that (1) it would be good to have the war colleges have some competition and have to fight for the best students and (2) if there was a demand for serious PME education, universities would develop serious programs to meet that.

    There is a serious question over whether there is a cadre of folks out there who are truly qualified to produce the kind of PME education that is needed in the 21st century…and a bigger question of the ones that are qualified why they would want to do this?

  • Joan Johnson-Freese

    Mr. Carafano,

    I assume that doctors are involved with running Navy medicine, and that pilots are involved in running pilot training. Yet you reject the idea of having career academics involved — not running, but involved (which they currently are not)– in military education, and reject it as “turning the prison over to the mafia.” Seems a facile and defensive approach.

  • Dee

    I managed a portfolio at the DOE from 2008 to 2011, that experience created for me a professional lens to read articles on education, costs, and performance. Many of the topics discussed are not unique to DOD institutions, however these same tradeoffs and dilemmas are found in all secondary education. I have read pretty much every article on ROI concerning education, proposal to “fix” the costs of education, and proposals to finance it. Though I understand the benefits of a liberal studies education and received one myself, I wonder if the ROI in today’s world is worth it? I wonder if the world needs thinkers versus people with hard engineering skills who are capable of life-long learning? The student who I’m (in part with spouse) sending to college this year as a Freshman faces all the uncertainties of the education process as it is in 2012. While in closing: I have my prejudices in the course curriculum, wonder if some of the “fluff” courses will actually prepare a student for the job market, and wonder if spending priorities of the University are congruent with my own and relevant in 2012 I see the lack of an education it’s own conclusion. Really the strife and swirling personnel issues and competition for grants is expected in higher education, and the commentary on ROI assured in this day and age for all secondary education curriculum’s.

  • Hoosier Daddy

    @ Carafano: Academics as “mafia” … very helpful rhetoric there. Must be the blowtorch manners they inculcate at Heritage.

    If you think any leading universities want to get into the PME business – admitting a handful of officers to existing programs is one thing; admitting hundreds per year is quite another – you are quite deluded about academia.

    Moreover since, far as I know, your PME experience consists of adjunct or CDE-type deals, I’m not clear what exactly your bona fides are in this discussion anyway.

  • Rich B

    The teaching of officers should always follow academic process and scholarly debate.

    While war may be an academic study; true understanding may only come through practice. An academic may read treatise on air defense but until you sit in the chair you really do not understand the nuances of the relationship between the staff and the shooter.

    To carry your analogy forward; “I assume that doctors are involved with running Navy medicine, and that pilots are involved in running pilot training. The issue is your definition of “involved.”

    When you state the true involvement is getting the organizations, regardless of their core mission, to 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.

    This is what an academic fails to understand and why they will always find friction; it is never “regardless of the mission.” The mission comes first. Such as NPS where the mission is to provide high-quality, relevant and unique advanced education and research programs that increase the combat effectiveness of the Naval Services, other Armed Forces of the U.S. and our partners, to enhance our national security.

    The mission is to increase combat effectiveness and enhance national security, period. If they do this all things secondary occur as a byproduct. When you try to focus on making a “name for yourself”; when you focus on “embracing civilian expectations of scholarship” you fail to acknowledge the unique environment.

    Most accredited four-year universities require that their professors have PhDs. They require graduate coursework consisting of increasingly specialized and more seminar-style classes, culminating in a dissertation. The focus for many “academics” is to find tenure teaching jobs at an accredited college or university. It is about the career not the mission.

    However the military doesn’t have “tenure” does it? Ask the battleship admirals. What could be worse for military education than a tenured professor at a PME facility who cannot or refuses to adapt to the changing mission.

    “Sorry Chesty Puller, while we appreciate you vast knowledge of WWII; you unfortunately left VMI after your first year and never achieved a 4 year degree from an accreditated university. We cannot possibly have you teach Armed Conflict 101 since it would not meet our requirements for civilian scholarship and accreditation; Professer Jones has his PHD on the subject having read extensively about your actions and is much better suited to teach the course.”

    It is an undefined and often conflicting viewpoint you offer which may interpreted as overreaching. Your involvement implies a level that many feel oversteps similar to having a professor teach law who has never passed the BAR exam or teaching litigation having never stepped into a courtroom. Your focus is not on “the mission” but equally at providing a haven for educators. This is the trouble with balancing the art of war with… art.

    Academics while professional do not necessary meet the requirement of professional military; although they may be professional educators or knowledgeable on the political/historical/sociological aspects of the subject at hand.

    Academics have a huge role in reminding us of our ethics.
    They should have an active part in administration and governence, within bounds.
    Academics should help with program characteristics (program evaluation, integration, organization, protection of students, quality management, etc)
    They should help faculty meet training goals; help those unfamiliar with the mission achieve the mission by offering toolsets.
    They should make recommendations on learning resources.
    They should facilitate discussion and provide educational supervision on basic theories.

    However do not be confused. Military personnel “should” whenever possible be encouraged to teach other military personnel. If only from the educational principle of “authority.” They should engage in topics that may make civilians cringe; war should make us all cringe.

    There should more importantly be a JAG officer in the corner at times than an academic; although the academic would be welcome.

    The mission always comes first.

  • Rich B:

    “The mission always comes first” is one of those knee-jerk reactions to any criticism of PME (or of military bureaucracy, for that matter) that always amounts to: “It’s a military thing, you wouldn’t understand.”

    The fact that you don’t seem to understand the difference between training and education — and that for some reason, you think there should be a JAG standing in the corner — is exactly representative of the problems we educators face in PME every day. The whole point of PME, and especially the attempted and only partly successful reforms of PME in 1973 and 1986, was to make education for our officers something more than a bloviating, mil-to-mil BOGSAT.

    But it’s getting exhausting having to point this out, over and over, especially when the failures of that model are so manifestly clear. Joan’s book will do a better job of making this case than I can, and I strongly suggest that when it comes out this fall, you read it. Carefully.