PME: Too few civilian academics? Or too many? Here’s how to get to ‘just right’

PME: Too few civilian academics? Or too many? Here’s how to get to ‘just right’

By Joan Johnson-Freese

Best Defense office of saving PME

My recent book on Professional Military Education (PME), Educating America’s Military, advocates including experienced career academics in administrative positions at the nation’s war colleges, which, currently, rarely occurs. But the October 2012 Navy Inspector General (IG) report that resulted in the firing of the president and provost at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) largely faulted civilian academic administrators for the myriad issues they found there. Though these recommendations may seem to contradict each other, I would contend otherwise. Rather, I contend they point out unaddressed difficulties PME institutions face while attempting to commingle two very different cultures as they aim for ambiguous goals, thus setting up circumstances that consistently lead towards extremes, rather than getting it "just right."

There are important differences between war colleges and the NPS. Admiral James Stavridis stated his view on war college goals in his 2011 convocation speech at the National War College. "I knew what I was good at…but also sensed what I did not know or understand well: global politics and grand strategy; the importance of the ‘logistics nation’; how the interagency community worked; what the levers of power and practice were in the world — in essence how everything fits together." The goal of the war colleges should be to educate students in the areas beyond their comfort zones, to broaden their horizons from largely technical and operational backgrounds. The NPS, on the other hand, offers graduate technical degrees in areas such as engineering and oceanography. According to the IG report, more than 42 percent of entering students have a background in liberal arts. Faculty composition is an important ramification of this difference. Whereas war college faculties can be and are significantly populated by individuals, including active duty and retired military officers, with little or no academic background in areas they teach, it is more difficult to bluff your way through teaching an engineering course than it is a history or economics course. To accomplish their mission, the NPS inherently needs and is therefore dominated by, a higher percentage of civilian academics.

But what are their missions?

Here is where similarities between problems found by the IG and problems I cover in my book converge. The number one recommendation in the IG report is: "That SECNAV determine the mission, function and task of NPS." Likewise, on page two of my book, I question if: "War College goals are clear, and whether articulated goals are then supported by practices and processes at those institutions." The military wants a highly technical-educated officer corps; Congress, through the Goldwater-Nichols Act, requires that officers be educated for "intellectual agility." All schools must constantly demonstrate "relevance" or risk being seen as low-hanging fruit in budget battles — which means they are constantly expanding their missions and programs — and all education programs are to be executed at breakneck speeds to get valuable officers back into operational billets, with no failures. The IG report references education as being seen as "a pump and not a filter" part of the NPS’s mission. Throughput drives all PME institutions, as the graduation rates at the war colleges are near 100 percent, and the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported a similar rate of 98 percent at the NPS.

A shift in the NPS 2008 Strategic Plan, toward research, and an apparent coup of civilian academics over pushed-aside military officers was determined to be at the heart of the NPS’s issues. The IG report documents flagrant violations of regulations in the use of government funds, and states the NPS prioritized research over teaching. But who are these "civilians"? The president was a retired Navy vice admiral. Civilians come in many different varieties, including retired military, practitioners with no academic experience, and academics with administrative experience and those without administrative experience. A civilian academic is not simply someone not in uniform, or with a doctorate, and broad-brush blame seems to serve little constructive purpose.

While career academics are notoriously bad administrative managers — preferring to focus on their disciplines — their expertise is critical in providing students a valuable educational program. I argue that just as pilots are certainly included in designing and executing pilot training programs, and doctors in military medical programs, experienced, career academics similarly ought to be included in PME academic administration, including curriculum design and delivery, as well as hiring and promotions. But academics are product oriented, frustrating the military which is process oriented. Nevertheless, the two cultures must work together. If they don’t, it can result in — as suggested in both my book and the IG report, quoted here — an organization operating "neither as a Navy command nor the universities it strives to model itself after."

Apparently the NPS president was isolated from those who could advise him on process violations by layers of administrative bureaucracy, created by the ham-fisted civilians to push aside the hapless military officers. (That the military officers would allow that to occur seems curious and raises other questions.) While I have no basis for comment on the intent of the administrators running interference between the president and his staff (the IG, the JAG), I have no doubt about its existence. Administrative bloat is an issue that needs attention at all PME institutions. Too often, these positions are created as rewards for those considered "team players" by PME power holders, of whatever variety.

The IG report succinctly points out the tensions that exist between military and academic cultures, and it’s about time. A war college civilian colleague recently conveyed an exemplary story. He had used the word "tension" to describe relations between civilian and military (retired, in this case) faculty in a meeting and was pulled aside afterward, and censured for such. It doesn’t exist, according to "team players." Tension, however, can be useful if managed correctly. In fact, this military-civilian tension is the innate advantage any war college possesses to fulfill the likes of legacies such as Luce, Mahan, Spruance, and Turner.

Faculty at PME institutions must live by DOD and service rules. Most individuals I know fully understand that, but problems arise when policies are ambiguous, with rules arbitrarily imposed depending on leadership desires and the legal officer in place at any given time. I was once told by a legal officer that legal officers take one of two positions: that it is their job to find legal ways for individuals to accomplish their mission, or that it is their job to say "no" to any question or request as a default position, to protect the organization. The person telling me that readily (and proudly) admitted she took the latter approach. Having worked at three PME institutions I have experienced the same rules interpreted different ways within and between institutions — with one legal officer telling me that something for which I had written approval to do in a different PME institution he considered illegal, and threatened legal action.

The irony of the IG report is that it assumes a cut-back in research emphasis will result in more attention to teaching. But the need to graduate officers quickly and easily — the "pump, not filter" issue — is not entirely or even primarily a function of research being prioritized over teaching. In PME, the issue is largely one of students being "too big to fail."

Also noted in the IG report is that many NPS faculty are tenured, with the implication that job security gave them the ability to ride roughshod over the military. It is certainly true that faculty without tenure at other PME institutions would be unlikely to challenge policies. In fact, faculty, typically on three- or four-year contracts, become too cowered to challenge anything, including the pressure to be a pump, not a filter. Tenure policies can vary dramatically between and even within PME institutions. The Air War College had tenure, dropped it, reinstated it, and then dropped it again, giving those on tenure-track contracts the draconian choice of foregoing tenure or receiving a one-year contract. Rules can change quickly, often, and opaquely.

The IG report raises important issues. Some can be fixed by organizational process changes. I fear, however, that rather than comprehensively addressing the institutional problems, a knee-jerk reaction will follow to demonstrate activity in addressing the multitude of recommendations made, likely to include some activity with counterproductive results. Already, I’m told, consideration has been given to requiring each and every faculty presentation or potential publication to go through a substantive review process — one that goes beyond checking for security violations, which is within regulatory purview but irregularly required — though there is no office at the NPS capable of doing so in a timely manner. That will present a very real chill on the faculty’s ability to act as a faculty.

Overreaction has already set in. Ostensibly in reaction to some small number of groups/organizations holding or paying for conferences at what the Navy considered exorbitant rates, Naval War College faculty wishing to attend any conference or workshop must now get approval external to the institution. Inattentiveness or lack of personnel to process these requests for approval has already resulted in faculty, including myself, having professional trips cancelled. In my case it was a trip to attend a meeting of the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences, funded by that organization. I took vacation time to attend. Another chill on a faculty regularly acclaimed as "world class." This seems inconsistent with General Dempsey’s white paper on education to "attract and maintain civilian and military faculty members who are among the very best and brightest of their contemporaries." Creating pre-publication review processes and erecting hurdles to academic conference participation guarantees to undermine the chairman’s goal.

The tensions inherent in trying to kluge together two very different cultures can be managed, but requires acknowledgement of legitimate perspectives on both sides and a clearly stated mission. Denial and quick fixes help no one, not the students who attend these institutions, nor the nation that pays for their extended scholarships.

Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor and former department chair at the Naval War College. She is the author of Educating America’s Military (Rutledge, 2013). The views expressed here are strictly her own.