Best Defense

Tales of the shutdown (III): On civilian faculty, federal furloughs, and quality

By Nicholas Murray Best Defense guest columnist I’ve just read Professor Bruce Fleming’s comments regarding PME during the furlough. I found interesting the similarity of his experience with mine. As we know, almost all PME civilian employees were deemed non-essential and sent home (though most have since returned to work). What struck me most was ...

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By Nicholas Murray
Best Defense guest columnist

I’ve just read Professor Bruce Fleming’s comments regarding PME during the furlough. I found interesting the similarity of his experience with mine. As we know, almost all PME civilian employees were deemed non-essential and sent home (though most have since returned to work). What struck me most was what has happened to the students’ classes after civilian faculty were sent home: Some of the classes at the U.S. Naval Academy continued, some did not, depending on whether there was the expertise to continue teaching those subjects. At the Command and General Staff College, all of the classes continued despite the bulk of faculty being furloughed. How was it that one institution could seemingly carry on as normal while another felt it did not have sufficiently qualified faculty to continue, except in a few areas where the active-duty faculty could effectively cover?

To find out how CGSC managed this we need to look at what it does. Its main goal is to educate and develop leaders for joint operations and functions, as called for by the Goldwater-Nichols Act, and to teach critical and creative thinking in order to prepare officers for the longer term. As such, classes follow a graduate-school model of discussion seminars, led by an expert, where the free flow of ideas is the norm in a small-group seminar setting (one over 16 being the model).

The problem is, last week these classes were taught in groups as large as one over several hundred. And by whom, given that the civilian experts were deemed non-essential? But, I hear, CGSC is not a civilian graduate school, at least according to some, so the normal rules of graduate schooling don’t matter.

The thing is, they do: CGSC is accredited both as a graduate school and for teaching joint operations. In fact, according to page 9 of CGSC’s catalog, the school is a graduate degree granting college and it legally must maintain accreditation for its classes from the relevant civilian education authorities. This is true, whether or not all officers take a degree. Accreditation is important, because it establishes standards and best practices to ensure that students are getting a decent quality of education. Thus, accreditation is not simply a bar to get over every few years: it should be viewed as a pathway to the best education a school can provide.

Yet, CGSC chose to carry on as though nothing substantial changed. On the face of it, students continued to learn and the government got to save a bunch of money. What could be wrong with that? What does that have to do with accreditation? The answer to both questions is, more than it seems.

The civilians furloughed from the PME schools provide the bulk of the subject matter expertise for those institutions. This is certainly true at CGSC. This fact is important, because accreditation requires that faculty be qualified to a level higher than the classes they are teaching. Thus, for graduate classes, that typically means doctoral degrees are required. Of course, there are some active-duty personnel teaching in the PME system who possess such a qualification. However, the majority do not. This is not to question their ability or integrity, but it does raise an important issue: How can the classes remain accredited if people with the requisite level of qualifications are not teaching them? Remember, the USNA closed classes (as did many other PME schools) that did not have the required level of qualified instructor or expertise. CGSC did not.

There is another piece to this: the quality of education. Most research on education shows that the level of knowledge of the instructor closely relates to the learning outcomes of the student. This means classes at CGSC might well have been running but in all likelihood student outcomes were not the same; they were lower. Again, clearly this was recognized by the USNA and other PME schools, but seemingly not by CGSC.

CGSC’s response to the furloughs was to carry on as though nothing actually changed. This indicates that it is more interested in appearing good than being good. I would welcome a response that explains how CGSC maintained the quality of ‘seminars’ that went from a ratio of one instructor to 16 students to as many as one to 200-300 without the requisite expertise that was deemed necessary only a couple of weeks earlier.

The USNA (and other PME schools) made it clear through their actions that they care more about the actual quality of the education they provide to the students than does CGSC. I am led to the inevitable conclusion that CGSC is more interested in checking the box marked "success," rather than actually achieving it. This bodes ill for General Cone’s vision of CGSC as Harvard on the Missouri.

Dr. Nicholas Murray is an associate professor in the Department of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and Staff College. This year he was awarded the Department of the Army Commander’s Award for Civilian Service, and he was named Educator of the Year for History. He has previously published "Guess what? CGSC is even more broken than we thought! And it is getting worse" on Best Defense and "Officer Education: What Lessons Does the French Defeat in 1871 Have for the US Army Today?" in the Small Wars Journal. The views are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1
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