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Teach Tough, Think Tough: Three Ways to Fix War Colleges

Posted by Joan Johnson-Freese on


Critics continue to advocate slamming the doors on at least some of the country’s professional military education institutions, the war colleges. But no one can realistically advocate for a less educated modern military. Instead, what we need is a more effectively educated military.

The civil-military gap between faculty members, including the lack of diversity among students and military faculty, low standards of admission and hiring, and the tension between education and an officer’s career advancement need to be addressed, as do the issues of academic freedom and the micromanagement of curriculum by military staffs. These latter two issues are serious problems, although the Naval War College, and a long line of its presidents, has remained committed to strong standards of academic freedom and to maintaining the strength of the curriculum through continued faculty development. Other PME institutions, apparently, are not so fortunate.

But how to fix these problems; that is the rub.

First, it is difficult even to define a civilian or a military faculty member in the PME system. Military officers can retire quite young and begin drawing a full pension immediately, an unworkable and expensive practice that was targeted for overhaul by former Secretary of Defense Gates. While the effects of this policy are far-reaching across the DoD, the result in PME is that many active duty military members spend their last assignment at the war colleges doing whatever is needed to assure a post at the institution after retirement — and they frequently succeed.

As a result, a careful look at how many civilians are PME faculty would reveal that many are actually retired military officers who walked out in uniform on Friday and returned in civilian clothes on Monday. When I became a department chair in 2002, for example, the faculty in my department of 33 people was roughly one-third active duty military and two-thirds civilian. But only a handful of the civilians were not retired military; their career background was as military professionals rather than teachers. Upon my arrival, I had discussions with each faculty member, and almost all of the active-duty military officers on our roster told me that their retirement plan was to continue teaching at the Naval War College.

The problem snowballs when increasing numbers of retirees — who have little or no experience as educators — are hired as faculty, or, more insidiously, into a burgeoning number of administrative staff positions. The staff positions include assistant deans, associate deans, deans, program directors, special advisors, and “professors” with various titles, whose duties are sometimes — at best — unclear. Often, these jobs are filled without advertising the positions, or as the result of “worldwide” searches that always seem to produce the officer who was sitting down the hall waiting to retire as the only viable candidate. The educational goal of the institutions can be undermined by the desire to use the institutions as a jobs program for retirees. The result: the war colleges increasingly become bureaucracies driven by the bureaucratic goal of self-perpetuation.

On the other side of the civil-military equation, steps also need to be taken to reform the recruitment and retention of civilian academic faculty. The war colleges too often replicate the dysfunctions found in mediocre civilian universities, where the youngest and brightest stars leave for more intellectually rewarding positions, while many of the faculty who do stay rapidly become costly cords of dead wood. It is a truism that most academics do not “come” to PME so much as they “end up” there. While the war colleges have made some fine hires by capitalizing on the brutally tight academic job market (and the occasional mistakes of university tenure committees), they have also gathered academics whose careers either never launched or sputtered out quickly. These faculty have an affinity for the emphasis in PME schools on easy, training-style goals since predictable and repetitive teaching tasks relieve them of facing any new challenges or changes.

Finally, another category of faculty member has crept into the war college mix of late: practitioners. Practitioners are increasingly included in academic faculties for the specialization and experience that they can bring, and they are especially important in war colleges because of the increased need to pay attention to interagency issues

However, the need for practitioners on a long-term basis is limited because these professionals are largely comfortable teaching only what they know — and what they know tends to be (as in the case of retirees) an asset that declines in value the longer they are away from their area of professional activity. While they bring crucially needed “fresh eyes” to the PME system, they are neither fish nor fowl (academic or military), and thus their long-term value as faculty members may be undermined by a limited understanding of the academic enterprise of graduate military education.

In response, then, to the many questions I received from my correspondents, I have three recommendations for improving the effectiveness of PME faculty overall.

  • PME schools cannot overhaul the military retirement system, but they can limit the number of retirees hired onto war college faculties. One possibility would be to limit such hires to a percentage of the total faculty. This would force consideration of hiring retired officers for specialized talents and future potential, and not just for routine tasks with a nod to past rank taken as immediate qualification for the post.

There will be a price to pay with this recommendation: I have hired some excellent active duty faculty into civilian billets as they retired, and they have been outstanding teachers, blossoming scholars, and builders of vital curricular and outreach programs. There will be fewer billets for such individuals. But there will always be a place for those who are exceptional, and the overall educational benefits of hiring a more balanced, educationally focused, and experienced faculty will not only enhance the quality of the curriculum (which should always be developed by the faculty who teach it), but diversify the perspectives taught in the classroom as well.

This recommendation will be met with no small amount of animosity. Some military faculty – active duty or retired – barely tolerate the presence of academics as it is, and will resist any effort to limit their own numbers. In 2004, for example, a Naval War College colleague pushed forward a system (eventually adopted by the then-President) for awarding faculty rank based on merit, rather than indiscriminately handing out the rank of full professor to nearly all new hires. It was met with outright fury by some military retirees, who argued that almost any military service justified the most senior academic title regardless of other qualifications (or lack thereof). This reaction not only emphasized how devalued the title of “Professor” had become at the war colleges – not least because it was viewed as an entitlement, not an achievement – but the ensuing debate revealed how little thought was being given to what it means to be an “educator” or even “to educate.”

In fact, one military retiree in a key administrative position at the Naval War College openly admitted that he rejected the proposal for merit-based ranks because few if any of his faculty would be able to compete for any academic rank under such a system. Worse, he countered with a proposal that “the president [of the War College] establish a policy whereby all future Deans, Department Chairmen and Directors have a minimum of 20 years career military service,” which would exclude all civilian academics from any leadership position and thus end any further challenges to the status quo. While the counterproposal was not accepted, the proportion of retirees in senior positions remains nonetheless quite high.

As Dr. George Reed, a retired officer who later earned a PhD and taught in both PME and civilian universities, put it in a recent article, “Retired officers are a mixed bag. They are often completely dedicated to the institution and bring a lifetime of experience, but without a deep underlying reservoir of disciplinary knowledge and a strong desire to stay connected and contribute to it, they can get a bit stale. They rarely leave voluntarily and the administration rewards their loyalty, if not their contributions, by renewing their contracts. Their experiences have a shelf life that begins to expire on the date of retirement.” With regard to civilian academics, Reed also pointed that the war colleges tend to attract “a form of second tier-academic,” good teachers who nonetheless “lack a record of meaningful scholarship,” because the war colleges “aren’t much interested in research or scholarship either.”

This leads to my second set of recommendations, regarding civilian academics.

  • PME academic faculty need a tenure or tenure-like system that not only gives them a goal to achieve through greater productivity, but allows them to cohere as a stable faculty and participate fully in the life of their colleges. Just as in a civilian institution, faculty should be reviewed after five years for their classroom abilities (considered over the long term, and not just based on sometimes fickle student evaluations), but also as academics serious about their careers, as demonstrated by published, policy-relevant scholarship.

Too often, civilian PME academics fall into a rut at the war colleges, where they respond to the bureaucratic norms of the military institution and only do enough to gain their next contract renewal, rather than remaining engaged with their external peers and adhering to the higher standards of their profession. They can come to see themselves as contractors rather than faculty, and thus default to an occupational, rather than professional, model of academia, in which teaching is a job rather than a vocation.

If faculty do not demonstrate scholarly achievement and cannot perform beyond average teaching in their first term at their colleges, they should not be renewed. Like their counterparts at civilian universities, or course, war college faculty sometimes try to circumvent the normal standards of academic productivity by claiming they are many years into writing the magnum opus that they were supposedly working on when they were hired, with little or nothing to show for it long after promotions based more on hope than achievement. But again, the norms of the bureaucracy also encourage them to adopt the maxim that “if the minimum weren’t good enough, it wouldn’t be the minimum,” and they end up essentially abandoning their careers for a series of contracts.

But fair is fair: if faculty are to be held to these better standards, then their work schedules must allow time for accomplishment of actual scholarship and its associated products. This means recognizing that they need time for scholarly work that is not constantly sacrificed to the erratic taskings and time-consuming — but unproductive — office routines that are more appropriate to a low-level bureaucrat than to a top teacher and researcher.

Moreover, faculty who are renewed after a probationary period into a tenured position should keep getting reviewed. Being retained permanently should not mean — as it often does now — automatic promotions with accompanying pay raises. As in any tenure system, termination should still be possible, but only through a transparent process, and only for the kind of misconduct, such as non-performance of duties, that would invalidate any academic’s employment anywhere. To its credit, the Naval War College, more than any other PME institution, adheres fairly closely to a truly academic system, where faculty are essentially permanent after six years of service, with some failing to reach that mark but protected from arbitrary decisions afterward. Faculty at other PME schools, however, report that they can be — and have been — fired at will after many years as faculty by capricious administrators hiding behind opaque processes, with no explanation and no chance for appeal.

Without such a system, faculty become risk-averse, absorbed by the need to survive to their next contract, and less able to voice their recommendations and opinions as part of an academic community. More troubling, this need to stay afloat means that they cease to perform, if they ever did, to faculty standards that would normally be required at the types of institutions the war colleges consider their peers, such as the Fletcher School at Tufts, the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, or the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M.

Faculty on the contract treadmill end up trying to game the system by hypocritically picking and choosing when they want to be considered as federal employees, and when they want to be respected as academics. When told they should match the productivity of their peers at other institutions, they claim such demands are impossible for a mere federal worker. But when they want to take time off, seek funds for academic travel, or devote time to their own pursuits, they stand on their educational credentials. If faculty want to reap the benefits of the kind of treatment they feel is due them as scholars, then they must be held to the same scholarly standards found at similar educational institutions.

  • More effort should be made to bring practitioners and experts from other specialized fields to the war colleges, such as the highly successful Secretary of the Navy Fellowships from the 1980s, a program that has since been discontinued but should be revived. However, these fellowships should be temporary and terminal. Outside experts and practitioners should come to the PME system, teach in the core curriculum or offer electives in their field, and conduct research and curriculum development — and then return to their regular posts elsewhere. Otherwise, they might well end up spending their time in PME trying to make their visiting positions permanent instead of serving the needs the fellowship was meant to meet.

In the end, faculty issues are only one part of a set of reforms needed in the PME system. Improving the faculty will not improve the war colleges if other problems, such as control over the admission of students, or pervasive and serious gender issues in the classroom, are not addressed as well. But reforming faculty practices is a necessary part of the remedy to a set of problems which many in the PME community still swear do not exist.

As long as PME administrators and senior leaders continue to be rewarded only for reporting that “all is well” in the command, military education will continue to be a place where everyone, students and faculty alike, can excel merely by doing the minimum — if that much — as long as it’s done with a smile and does not threaten either a student’s career advancement or the jobs program for the faculty.

Military education is a crucial component of our national defense. We can do better — and our country deserves it.

What do you think?