Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Is there hope for PME?: Addressing IG report issues at the Naval War College

By Joan Johnson-Freese Best Defense guest columnist The Naval War College (NWC) is, in my opinion, the academically strongest program among the professional military education (PME) intermediate and senior schools. Some assert that this is the case because the Navy has largely left the institution to its own devices — a form of benign neglect ...

via Naval History & Heritage Command
via Naval History & Heritage Command
via Naval History & Heritage Command

By Joan Johnson-Freese

Best Defense guest columnist

The Naval War College (NWC) is, in my opinion, the academically strongest program among the professional military education (PME) intermediate and senior schools. Some assert that this is the case because the Navy has largely left the institution to its own devices -- a form of benign neglect under which the institution has flourished.

By Joan Johnson-Freese

Best Defense guest columnist

The Naval War College (NWC) is, in my opinion, the academically strongest program among the professional military education (PME) intermediate and senior schools. Some assert that this is the case because the Navy has largely left the institution to its own devices — a form of benign neglect under which the institution has flourished.

But there has been considerable discussion consequent to the release of the Navy Inspector General’s (IG) report on the Naval War College regarding the report’s meaning and potential ramifications, including efforts in some quarters to spin the IG report as "mostly good news." That’s been a tough spin though, made difficult by the report’s finding that "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." Specific internal factors cited include "organizational structure and governance, poor communications, faculty perceptions of ineffective corporate representation, [and] hiring practices that favor proximity and familiarity with retired naval officers that may lack prestigious academic credentials and diversity."

When the academically strongest program gets "dinged," it prompts the question of what it will take to institute meaningful change in PME. What can reverse the narrowing "margin of excellence" trend? In a review of the IG report, I suggested as key: a high-quality faculty actively engaged in their fields; academic freedom and institutional support to maintain their expertise; and a job environment that allows faculty to challenge the students without fear of losing their jobs. The question then becomes how to create and maintain an environment hospitable to those requirements at the Naval War College — and I suspect other PME institutions as well.

The simple answer: Informed, involved leadership whose North Star remains the national security needs of our nation’s Naval and Joint operational-level commanders, as well as those in the highest echelons of strategic leadership. Without such — while attempted change won’t be just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic because the Naval War College is not a sinking ship, just moored — change will be marginal at best.

While teaching at NWC since 2002, I have worked for seven presidents (PNWC), most in place for a year or two — one for four. They have all been rear admirals and, like all PNWCs, understandably arrived with good intentions, wanting to do good things. Unfortunately, however, PNWCs spend much of their often-short time trying to figure things out — how things work; who’s who, etc. Because they do not understand educational institutions at least initially, there is a tendency to focus on form over substance. They are comfortable with a training mentality and that is where they seem to default, sometimes to the detriment of education. Regrettably, by the time they "get" the institution, it is time to leave. Many faculty sense that some rear admirals are "stashed" at the War College, waiting for a three-star billet already picked out for them. Those admirals’ tenures are the shortest.

Most PNWC become cautious caretakers of the status quo. To their credit, toward the end of their tour, they come to understand the college’s institutional and command climate issues that need addressing; however, from the faculty’s point of view, they only succeed in keeping things from getting worse. Thus, as noted by the Navy’s Inspector General, a slow downward spiral ensues.

Presidents do take on initiatives. Without question, the Navy knows how to train. New training-cum-education initiatives are started by presidents to demonstrate responsiveness to constant calls to address areas like leadership, or transformation, and the always-popular "competency" development. Unfortunately, however, this approach inevitably morphs into mere activity that blurs NWC’s focus while inducing mission creep. Moreover, some within NWC leadership view this proliferating activity as an opportunity to grow both the college’s budget and concomitantly its administration.

Additionally, presidential focus on demonstrating value to the Navy through "more activity" invariably leads to leaving the NWC to be largely run by long-serving, very powerful retired military officers, a few token, accommodating academics, and the increasingly popular D.C. "practitioners" (bureaucrats), all who are more than happy with the status quo.

Examples of leaders turning around large organizations in the military and business are legion. NWC prides itself in the examination of applicable case studies. However, any one of the gray-beard faculty and administrators who are military retirees with connections to Big Navy can, will, and have pick[ed] up the phone to an old friend or Academy roommate to make War College presidential life miserable if they potentially see the status quo shaken. Unfortunately as well, too many rank-and-file faculty members witness this behavior and come to accept that simply "slow-rolling" to undermine and wait out the change efforts of a short-tenured PNWC’s is a normal course of action. Change is hard.

The solution: the president must lead change — courageously.

"Leading" does not mean micro-management of minutiae such as making sure all the clocks are set properly or counting how many stairwells there are in the buildings (both of which indeed actually happened). It means overseeing academic policy and ensuring that the faculty is empowered to best enact that policy to meet the national security requirements of the nation.

Currently, the NWC provost’s office is the place where all the Christmas tree lights are plugged in. The position is all-powerful, to the extent that internal actions — hiring, promotions, policies — tacitly become the provost’s prerogative. Normally, a provost acts as the internal chief operating officer of efforts and resources for all sectors of an academic institution, an arbiter of sorts, and works with external funders. At NWC that would mean being a balancer between academic programs and Navy needs by working with the PNWC to assure the institution gets the resources needed from Big Navy, and managing intra-organizational affairs. If that route is taken, then these combined responsibilities require knowledge and experience with both DOD/military and academia.

Do these people exist? They do, for example: Dr. George Reed, retired Army officer and associate dean and associate professor at University of San Diego; Dr. Andrew Bacevich, retired Army officer and professor at Boston University; Admiral (ret.) James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts. Qualifications are key not just for understanding the standard operating procedures of both academia and the military, but so that the individual cannot be professionally vulnerable to or captured by any of the strong internal factions.

The person must be one willing to be a change agent, with all that entails. One of the key efforts of this provost would be a major sweep of the plethora of assistant and associate deans and provosts hired over the past ten years, and often counted as "faculty" for critical faculty-student ratios required by both DOD and civilian accreditors. It would also include a reexamination of centers and programs created to demonstrate responsiveness to Navy needs: eliminate mission creep and empire builders. Although some increased number of administrators than in the past is necessary due to the ever-rising requests for institutional information, unless positions can be justified the billets should be eliminated or converted to "real" faculty positions. 

Alternatively, the position of provost could be eliminated.

The chief of staff — a senior captain — could assume the non-academic "run the building" functions of the provost and the PNWC could become the intra-organizational arbiter of funding and efforts, working with the various deans. That would put him or her in closer touch with the organization. It would also, however, require the PNWC to hit the ground running on a very steep institutional learning curve. Another potential danger of this approach would be assuring that the institutional management of the college isn’t disassociated from the academic mission of the college. Standard operating procedures for running a ship rarely transfer to those for running a college.

In either case, the position of academic dean should be revised to include, as is normally the case, being dean of the faculty. The all-powerful provost currently holds that title, leaving the dean of academics to carve out a portfolio of begrudged and limited responsibility. If the position of provost is maintained, the dean reports to the PNWC through the provost; if not, the dean is a direct report to the president.

An empowered academic dean must then have significant civilian academic experience in all the areas of policy he/she is responsible for, several of which were cited in the recent IG report. These include tightening the recruitment, hiring and promotion policy and decisions, establishing a tenure policy, pay scales, curriculum development, accreditation, diversity policy, the academic handbook, a faculty senate — all things that other academic institutions consider standard operating procedures. The dean will have had to at least been through a tenure process and served on recruitment and promotion committees at some civilian academic institution.

Similarly, a dean of research at NWC, or any PME institution, should have basically the same qualifications as someone in that position at a civilian academic institution: an outstanding record of research and publication (in this case, in a subject area directly related to national-security affairs), including books published by university presses and articles in top journals. These evidence knowledge of accepted methods of research methodologies, peer review, an understanding of publishing requirements, and an ability to evaluate and mentor others in these areas. Perhaps most importantly, it establishes the credibility of the research division both for the Navy and the larger security policy community. 

A simple "3 P’s" method is useful for qualifying all academics and those who supervise them: pedigree, position and publications. Even the IG report ignored the importance of scholarly publications, perhaps because it was assumed. Academics judge other academics by "what have you done lately" standards, evidenced by publications.

PME institutions have hybrid faculties: active duty military, retired military, career academics, and practitioners. Each play a key role in developing and maintaining balance and relevancy in the curriculum. PME students are security professionals, not Ivy League theorists, and this hybrid faculty assures the academics don’t take them down that wrong road. All must be represented in the administration. But the mission of PME is education, making it imperative that the president be able to call on experienced educators in his/her provost and dean for informed advice.

Unfortunately, the NWC has become very "personality driven." Stovepipes and "alliances" — fiefdoms — have evolved that, essentially, stifle the institution and its higher purpose. Only informed, knowledgeable leadership can change that.

One other person will be key: the judge advocate general (JAG) officer. PME institutions are academic institutions that must operate within government parameters. The IG report pointed out instances where the NWC could do better in terms of staying within those parameters. Nuances of copyright and reimbursement from nongovernmental entities for lectures and receipt of honorarium are topics that often seem to bemuse JAGs. Civilian colleges typically hire general counsels with specialized expertise in education-related law and outsource litigation.

The right JAG officer understands the mission and that it is his/her job to find ways to accomplish that mission within legal parameters. The wrong JAG officer simply says no to anything out of the ordinary, and in PME "not ordinary" can often happen. Navy duty hours to drive a ship or even to work staff jobs do not easily convert to time spent creating lectures, preparing for class, reading books to keep current in various fields, grading exams and all the other things academics do as professionals, and not between 730-1600. JAG assistance will be needed to assure the education mission does not get sacrificed to narrowly defined rules, or that rules are simply ignored as inconvenient. The NWC really needs a senior JAG to handle the "big-picture" policy and institutional issues, and a more junior JAG to handle the individual case issues.

Intermediate and senior PME cannot be replaced by sending officers off to civilian institutions. PME offers both a tailored, security-practitioner focused curriculum and valuable "joint" networking opportunities not available at most civilian schools. Abandonment is not the answer.

The actions required to address the IG report issues will not be easy. They are, however, necessary. Without such the ship won’t sink, but the "margin of excellence" will continue to narrow.

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. The views expressed here are solely 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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.