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Best Defense

Gen. Kane’s response: Assessing the Air War College is a matter of perspective

Here is a response from the commandant of the Air War College to yesterday’s item about his institution. I had my say yesterday, so I will get out of the way, except to note two things. First, contrary to his assumption, I have indeed visited the Air War College and seen it personally, though not ...

Here is a response from the commandant of the Air War College to yesterday’s item about his institution. I had my say yesterday, so I will get out of the way, except to note two things. First, contrary to his assumption, I have indeed visited the Air War College and seen it personally, though not lately. Also, why do I get the feeling that he drafted some poor faculty members to write this for him?

I’ll leave it up to you all in the comment section to decide whether after reading this you think the place could be shuttered without any harm to the security of the nation-and in fact with substantial savings at a time when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs says that the national debt is a major threat to our security.

By Maj. Gen. Robert C. Kane, USAF
Commandant, Air War College

In the spirit of collegiality, academic freedom and intellectual honesty that we endeavor to instill in our faculty and students, I am proud to state the Air War College (AWC) continues to value the role Dr. Dan Hughes played as one of our long-term faculty members. The school has acknowledged his contribution through teaching awards and conferring emeritus status on him upon his retirement.

In that same spirit, as the current Commandant, I am obviously saddened to find that although Dr. Hughes had the rare and unique privilege of shaping the leadership and critical thinking skills of literally thousands of our future Air Force, sister service, interagency and international officers, he was so personally and professionally dissatisfied with a major part of his life’s work. I am also disappointed to find that despite Dan’s long years of service, he apparently never truly understood or appreciated the unique blend and balance of training, education and experience required to develop national security leaders for the future of our Nation, as well as that of our coalition and allied partner nations.

Hopefully, in addressing some of the thoughts in Dan’s chapter, “Professors in the Colonel’s World,” I will be able to give you a different perspective of this important institution and Air University. Very generally, like all institutions of higher learning, the Air War College has its own culture, weaknesses and strengths. In many ways as a relatively new institution it continues to be a work in progress, because while it was established in 1946, it only “civilianized” some of its faculty in the early 1990s. Later in that decade, based on the quality of the professional military education course work, Congress granted Air University the authority to confer a master’s degree to the war college graduates.

As you are well aware, over the past decade, the academic standards of the AWC have been affirmed by accreditation through both the Joint Chief of Staff’s Process for Accreditation of Joint Education (PAJE) and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). All AWC faculty members are judged acceptable by both organizations, and the curriculum continues to be reaffirmed per the PAJE process ensuring standards set by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are maintained. Achieving accreditation through these two very different bodies with their dissimilar perspectives requires the college to carefully balance a broadly based curriculum in order to provide the requisite education and skills. Military officers leading in today’s complex and changing security environment must be trained to think both critically and from the standpoint of practical experience in preparation to deal with the uncertainty of the future. This balance of military practicality and university intellectual curiosity requires a faculty that consists of military officers who are experts in leadership, warfighting and strategy, as well as deep thinking academics with backgrounds spanning from global security and national strategy, to economics, sociology and the hard sciences.

The resultant two complementary communities within the faculty, senior military officers and the civilian professoriate, live under the same school roof, arguably with a certain necessary professional tension and, for the most part, mutual understanding of the strengths each brings to the fight. Their respective roles are suborned by numerous documents from outside agencies that define the Air War College curriculum-and that of any other professional military education institution-with particular roles for both groups. In short, as the Commandant, my job is to balance the considerable skills of these two groups, exploit the natural tension between them to stimulate debate, and lead the resulting single team of professionals to accomplish the school’s mission: providing professional military education (PME) intended to sharpen the leadership and intellectual skills required to serve in positions of very considerable responsibility today and tomorrow. The result, I believe, is an extremely cohesive and focused faculty team, committed to developing and delivering a curriculum that is relevant and practical for today, thought provokingly suited to deal with an uncertain future; exploits the unmatched opportunity to build professional relationships and provides an opportunity for student renewal, both in terms of recommitting to the profession of arms and personally with their family and friends.

More specifically, rather than attempt to address each thought, perception or vignette contained in Dr. Hughes’ chapter, I’ll focus on those issues that cut to the heart of our mission as a senior service school accredited to grant both a master’s degree and Joint Professional Military Education Phase II. Unfortunately, Dr. Hughes attempts to create a caricature of our students and faculty by making overly broad and vague generalizations. In the process, he conflates his subjects’ individual opinions or quirks with official policy and similarly fails to note, in most cases, where our own form of institutional self-governance and adherence to standards effectively and efficiently corrected deficiencies within the school. Likewise, I don’t intend to address the conduct or policies of Commandants, Deans and others long since gone from the Air War College, rather I’ll provide some perspective on where the Air War College is today. The reality is quite different from the picture of this institution presented in Dr. Hughes’ narrative.

It is true that some senior officers assigned to Air War College faculty positions have reached the last years of their careers, and it is also true that a few may have done poorly in previous positions. However, these broadly experienced, seasoned officers have likely served in positions across the leadership spectrum, having commanded large military units, led troops in combat, served in senior Pentagon positions, acted as presidential aides, and often, through their own choice, have obtained PhD degrees at prestigious universities. Other officers have served in planning cells and come well-equipped to teach required courses in military joint doctrine, operations and strategy. The rare faculty member labeled by some as having failed, often continues to serve with distinction and in some cases has brought some very unique and valuable personal insights to the school on the challenges faced by senior national security leadership.

Other senior colonels or Navy captains serve as department heads or as deans and associate deans, where their leadership skills normally exceed those of the professoriate, who have limited practical leadership experience. In fact, many civilian faculty members prefer teaching and research activities to administrative duties, just as they commonly do in civilian institutions. To maintain proper balance, military officers serving as department chairs are always assisted by a civilian deputy, with civilians frequently leading in curriculum development efforts. When military faculty members take on institutional leadership and administrative responsibilities, civilian faculty are free to focus on research and writing necessary for their professional development and to ensure they remain current and relevant in their areas of expertise. As a result of this balance, the list of articles, papers and books produced by our civilian faculty would be the envy of even a medium-sized state university faculty.

Our blended faculty has an extremely vital role in institutional governance. Following broad guidance prescribed by the Joint Staff, the Air Force and Air University, the faculty alone develops and delivers the curriculum. Within the Air War College, various faculty committees review and vet elective offerings, determine student academic and research awards and provide input on a variety of academic policies. A separate committee, elected each year from among the entire faculty, provides advice and counsel to the Dean and Commandant on all academic promotions and initial reappointment requests. Civilian hiring recommendations are made by committees drawn from the affected department. I know of no instance where the Dean, previous AWC Commandants or Air University leadership denied a recommendation of the faculty to hire, retain or promote a colleague.

Finally, with regard to faculty, contrary to Dr. Hughes’ statement that “a few” colonels hold doctoral degrees from “reputable graduate schools”-implying that most have degrees from lesser sources-all active-duty colonels currently serving on my faculty hold degrees from credible universities such as Georgetown and George Washington. None have “on-line” degrees or degrees from schools any reasonable person would place “at the bottom of the academic world.” In fact, several of these colonels have recently published books with academic presses. Dr. Hughes likewise engages in broad over-generalizations when discussing the handful of retired officers on faculty. Of these “hybrid” faculty members, otherwise derided as “colonel-doctors,” only one taught here at the AWC while on active-duty. The remainder did not then simply take off their uniforms to return as “ersatz civilians” as Dr. Hughes incorrectly states in his chapter.

The students at Air War College are O-5 and O-6 officers from all the U.S. services who are joined by over 40 international officers and a relatively small number of interagency civilians. To suggest that most of them would rather be doing something else is to ignore the reality that senior service school is a prerequisite for almost all military senior positions. These are officers who chose a military career because they are action-oriented and serve for a higher purpose which can and often includes putting their lives on the line. Many do not share the pure intellectual curiosity of the civilian faculty at Air War College, although by graduation all understand that to be successful at warfighting, arguably the most complex of all human endeavors, requires broad awareness, study, and acceptance of many intellectual disciplines some would consider non-traditional for military leaders. Similarly, our students come to appreciate the need to acknowledge and understand a broad spectrum of political perspectives. Student evaluations of the program and of the faculty do sometimes reflect their concerns with a perceived left-leaning bias in some areas of the curriculum, yet those same evaluations rate their faculty quite favorably, despite sometimes open political differences.

I could continue to rebut all of Dr. Hughes’ assertions, but I find there to be little value in that exercise. Rather, in closing, I’d like to pass along something a senior civilian member of my faculty, Dr. David Sorenson, wrote in response to Dr. Hughes’ article: “Having served on the Air War College faculty for twenty years, I would put it in competition against a majority of the nation’s colleges and universities. Yes, it has the occasional fool, but those of us who have served at both types of colleges have worked for greater fools whose unproductive academic careers resulted in the reward of promotion to dean or provost or college president. Yes, sometimes the commanders and commandants were not ‘A’ students, but the Air University commander cited understood and valued education, and did much to support it. Yes, the students tend to the political and social right, but they have enough professional experience to understand balanced perspectives (and they give liberal faculty members generous evaluation scores if they otherwise do their jobs). I deliberately left decades of civilian academy behind when I joined the Air War College faculty and have never looked in the rear view mirror with regret.”

At the end of the day, we’ve got perception and reality here, and as we all know sometimes the perception becomes the reality even if it is only in the mind of the individual observer. You can form your perception of our institution through Dan’s chapter or my thoughts. As an alternative, I would like to invite you to personally experience the reality of the depth, breadth and quality of the program and the people we have here at the Air War College by attending our National Security Forum in May, where approximately 120 civilians from around the country will come to experience Air War College for themselves.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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