Best Defense

Some thoughts on the need for greater diversity in professional military education

By Joan Johnson-Freese Best Defense guest columnist Professional Military Education (PME) issues increasingly have been a topic of discussion and debate for about 3 years now. Diversity, however, has not been a conspicuous part of the online and print discussion, likely to avoid further complicating already complicated PME faculty qualification and military/civilian mix issues. But ...


By Joan Johnson-Freese
Best Defense guest columnist

Professional Military Education (PME) issues increasingly have been a topic of discussion and debate for about 3 years now. Diversity, however, has not been a conspicuous part of the online and print discussion, likely to avoid further complicating already complicated PME faculty qualification and military/civilian mix issues. But diversity was raised as an issue at the NATO-sponsored PME conference at Wilton Park and at the ITX3 conference at National Defense Uuniversity, both earlier this year. The curtain is being pulled back, exposing the "sea of sameness" that prevails, at least in senior PME institutions. Gender is only a part of the diversity issue, but it’s a place to start discussion.

A flag officer stood on the stage at the Naval War College last year addressing the student body, regaling the students about the intellectually charged program they were about to embark on, and the magnificently diverse student body and faculty. To its credit, women currently comprise 16 percent of active-duty Navy officers, including 36 flag officers. Yet many people curiously looked around the room at a sea of sameness. My male colleague sitting next to me whispered that we were about as diverse as the Pyongyang Parliament.

During a recent routine government inspection at the Naval War College, I was told, the investigators asked in advance what civilian institution the Naval War College considered its peer for comparative purposes. Yale was the answer. That provides an empirical basis for considering my assertion that gender diversity is an issue with PME, or at least the Naval War College as a sample. By just looking at faculty gender data offered on websites, admittedly not perfect, a "gap" between military and civilian academic institutions becomes obvious. Of the approximately 302 individuals listed as faculty on the NWC website, 27 are women, or about 9 percent. Looking at the History and Political Science Departments at Yale, the Harvard Kennedy School, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and the U.S. Naval Academy, the percentages are 40 percent, 42 percent, 28 percent, and 20 percent, respectively. So the NWC employs less than half the women faculty as the Naval Academy, and one-quarter the women of the school it considers its civilian comparative peer.

Of the 27 faculty women at the NWC, less than half actually hold teaching positions, or about 4 percent, making comparisons even starker. Scientists at Rensselaer have found the tipping point for the spread of ideas is at least 10 percent. Below that number of committed opinion holders, there is no discernible progress in the spread of ideas. Though it can be argued that departments like Joint Military Operations (JMO) skew the numbers toward males with military backgrounds, even within the other departments the numbers aren’t even close to civilian "peer" schools.

These figures regarding gender don’t even begin to consider the even lesser numbers of minority faculty members if considered by race and ethnicity.

What difference does diversity or lack thereof make in education? Educators are supposed to challenge students, and that includes challenging them from differing perspectives. A non-diverse body of people, many if not most with similar career backgrounds, teaching the same constituencies as themselves does little to broaden personal perspectives. In fact, in some cases it simply reinforces what can be already very narrow perspectives and the undermining of the independence of ideas becomes the norm.

Blindly building on non-diverse inputs has the inherent risk of insularity. Homogeneity can be a huge hindrance in what is today an increasingly dynamic, cross-cultural, cross-functional, joint military environment. Demographics of military situations and issues in general are making the military a more complex structure requiring a broadening of the composition of those that work with and for the system. It is the breadth of perspectives that comes from diversity that aid in the effective execution of changing requirements for the curricula, creation of more informed counsel for college governance and strategic oversight. Diverse environments allow for more productive situations in which the challenging issues of today’s military can be confronted as well as open situations to opposing and non-like-me opinions.

Why are there so few women in PME? The often-heard reason is "we can’t find qualified women" — though schools suggested as NWC-comparable seem able to do so. Having served as a department chair for eight years with responsibility for multiple faculty searches during that period, the problem is actually twofold: hiring and retention. Many of the highly-qualified women invited to interview would look around, see how few women there were, and consider that as prima facie evidence women aren’t really wanted, with a consequently high potential for a hostile work environment. Some women who came didn’t stay, finding the work environment indeed "difficult."

Experiences vary. The professional opportunities offered to PME faculty can be significant and the teaching very rewarding, and women certainly recognize and appreciate that. But personally, some highly-qualified women find the environment personally demoralizing. During my tenure as chair, issues were raised to me (including from beyond my department) ranging from offensive offhand statements and finding diverse input into discussions unwelcomed, to sometimes outright bullying by both male students and colleagues, and a case of simple assault. Though it is easy to say individuals who take offense should "toughen up or leave," that approach defeats the benefits of diversity, and ignores what should be considered the basic expectations of professional courtesy.

Having also been privy to eight years of student evaluations of faculty, it was not uncommon for teaching reviews of female faculty to include comments about their demeanors, personalities, and whether or not students "liked" them, comments far less common in reviews of their male faculty counterparts. There are seminars that welcome diverse views — I have had the pleasure of teaching many of those — but there are others that do not. Unquestionably as well, behavior deemed "assertive" in a man is seen as "bitchy" in a woman, as proven repeatedly in research on group dynamics.

Lack of diversity within the faculty is similarly reflected within the student body itself. Minorities in general make up less than 10 percent of the student body. Female students face challenges similar to female faculty.

Occasional meetings are held for administrators to "pulse the feelings" of women faculty members and students. Unfortunately they are often perceived as a perfunctory gesture of administrative concern.

The Naval War College is not unique, or likely even the most egregious of the PME schools in terms of lack of diversity, merely representational. Academia has already recognized the value of diversity, and the private sector is increasingly following suit. Targets such as 10 percent should be seen as a minimal threshold, not an end state.

Dealing with complex future issues requires complex thinking, what Joseph Nye calls "contextual intelligence" in his 2013 book Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era. "Contextual intelligence" is gained through exposure to multiple perspectives, information sources, and experiences. Increased, sustained, and serious efforts toward faculty diversity in PME, and not just gender related, are a necessary step toward providing PME students the "contextual intelligence" requisite to deal with the future challenges they will undoubtedly encounter.

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

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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