Best Defense

The Navy IG report on the Naval War College would have been better if its authors understood academic freedom

  Tom’s note: I sent a Navy IG report on the Naval War College to Professor Joan Johnson-Freese and asked her to review it. By Joan Johnson-Freese Best Defense guest columnist Teaching strategy and strategic planning is a key responsibility of the Naval War College. In particular, focus is placed on strategic planning to avoid ...

via United States Naval Institute
via United States Naval Institute


Tom’s note: I sent a Navy IG report on the Naval War College to Professor Joan Johnson-Freese and asked her to review it.

By Joan Johnson-Freese

Best Defense guest columnist

Teaching strategy and strategic planning is a key responsibility of the Naval War College. In particular, focus is placed on strategic planning to avoid an ends-means mismatch where what you want to do can’t be done with the means you have at hand. Trying to democratize Iraq by largely military means comes to mind as an example of an ends-means mismatch.

The team sent to the Naval War College (NWC) by the Naval Inspector General’s (IG) office last August might benefit from attending our classes. Based on the report recently issued, it could prove useful for them, and the Navy.  The bottom line: the IG seems to want the Naval War College to be academically more like Yale (which NWC administrators have suggested is a peer school to the NWC), but also more in lock-step with Department of Defense (DoD) bureaucratic rules.

Pick one.

Upon close reading this schizophrenia seems to flow from the report’s recommendation on "Organizational Structure." It calls for separating operations from academics.  While that would make sense if it meant that the Provost should not order the air conditioning filters, that doesn’t appear the intent.  The intent seems to be separation of the Naval War College mission, education, and how it carries out the mission, process.  The rest of the report reflects the arbitrariness and potentially counter-productive nature of that approach.

The report begins with the statement that the NWC "is currently successfully executing its mission to educate and develop leaders, support defining future Navy and associated roles and missions, support combat readiness and strengthen global maritime partnerships." But, the investigators go on to say, "there are indicators that the margin of excellence for this institution has narrowed, and this trend may continue in the future unless external and internal factors are addressed."

I certainly have been among those who see problems in Professional Military Education (PME) generally, and the Naval War College specifically, having written a book and multiple articles about those problems. So, I was pleased to see that the report supported my views that there are issues needing to be addressed regarding (lack of) diversity among faculty and students, faculty qualifications, hiring and retention, lack of a faculty voice in governance, and the interrelated nature of many of these issues.

Whoever wrote this part of the report clearly understood the substantive difference between education and training, which the military often doesn’t, and what it takes to provide quality education.  Key among those factors are these: 1, a high quality faculty actively engaged in their fields; 2, academic freedom and institutional support to maintain their expertise, and 3, a job environment that allows faculty to challenge the students without fear of losing their jobs. The report noted issues in all of those areas, and made recommendations for dealing with them.

Some recommendations are likely to be largely welcomed: A more broadly employed, transparent and standardized tenure policy; better support for faculty travel and attending professional conferences; and a faculty voice in governance, for example.

Other recommendations will be received differently by different types of faculty, — academic, retired military, practitioners and active duty — including the recommendations involving recognition that not all Ph.D.’s are equivalent, establishment of the rank of Professors of Practice for the increasing number of practitioners being hired as civilian academics, and those dealing with salary. Faculty at the Naval War College are handsomely paid and, the IG noticed, some are overpaid based on credentials. Getting a Ph.D. does not make someone an academic.  Getting a Ph.D. is the equivalent of getting commissioned.  It is a professional starting point, not a culmination point.

But whoever then wrote the second half of the report apparently hadn’t read the first half, as the second half is laden with bureaucratic process requirements that will not only hinder hiring and retaining quality faculty, but sometimes contradicts the goals set out earlier, and could result in top faculty starting to look into prospects elsewhere. In areas from basic academic freedom, to hiring, travel and research & publication, there are real dangers if left to the wrong people — those who don’t "get" education — to implement.

The words "academic freedom" — key to any successful educational institution — are mentioned once in the report, and in conjunction with pending legislation that could end up restricting it. It should have been incorporated as a guiding tenet throughout.

The answer to hiring issues is not to have human resources become more involved, as is recommended. While the HR people are well intended, their ability to read and interpret an academic resume is about the same as the retired military and practitioner administrators who dominate NWC leadership – nonexistent.

Though support is given for lifting the restrictions on faculty travel that have grown increasingly Byzantine over the past couple of years, the gifts of travel that faculty have basically procured themselves through their professional reputations, and have allowed them to continue their professional life, are smacked as being bureaucratically "non-compliant" in many cases. That could well mean a new, safe "just say no" policy to faculty "gifts of travel" to assure compliance.

Perhaps most frightening are the recommendations for, basically, much tighter administrative control over faculty research and publication. Academia, like the military, is a profession, with professional norms, including the requirement to conduct research and publish findings. Faculty are also contractually required to keep active in their fields, which means research and writing.

Now, however, faculty are cautioned to have publications reviewed by the Judge Advocate General’s office and the chain of command for security and policy issues.  What would be involved? Books, articles, online articles, opeds, blogs? Who is qualified to do that? I write on the Chinese space program. Is the PAO going to review it for policy? The JAG? And on what kind of timeline?  If pre-publication vetting of publications becomes a requirement, it will be the kiss of death for hiring and retaining an academically qualified and rigorous faculty, and so an academically rigorous academic curriculum and program.

The report was ambivalent about the curriculum. It seemed to approve of what is being done but felt the need to find fault and so insisted on more in the areas of irregular warfare, cyber and unmanned systems. Obviously these are important topics.  So is space, nuclear weapons, deterrence, defense budgeting, and a number of other "current" topics, all of which are in the curriculum. Anything that goes into the curriculum means something has to come out. The one thing that Newport does largely right is the curriculum. It is relevant, taught at the practitioner level, and current while not flavor-of-the-day, because — unlike the Army War College and the Air War College — the Navy stays out of it.

The War Colleges prepare future leaders for strategic jobs where they will be working with, and sometimes competing with, the best and the brightest from civilian academic institutions. It is imperative they be prepared to go toe-to-toe with these individuals. Education levels the playing field.

Therefore it is imperative that educators be allowed and supported in carrying out that mission.

My fear is that because the NWC leadership has little or no experience or background in academics, let alone academic administration, their natural inclination will be to salute smartly and just start implementing new bureaucratic rules and checking boxes to show responsiveness.  The process will be served, but not the educational mission.

Academic norms and bureaucratic rules are not incompatible. They simple take creative, knowledgeable people with their eye on the mission, rather than just the rule, to find a way to implement them within legal parameters. Otherwise, the gap between the mission and the process will become even wider than it is now.

Joan Johnson-Freese is a former department Chair and Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.  She is the author of numerous books and articles on space security, as well as Educating America’s Military (2013) dealing with Professional Military Education.

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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