Small Wars Journal


Professional Military Education: Separate Military Requirements and Academic Degrees

Tue, 07/03/2012 - 12:16pm

At an April 2012 panel on Professional Military Education (PME) in Washington, D.C., defense analyst Tom Ricks expressed apprehension that uncertainties about the rigor and value of PME would make it an easy target for those wielding the budget ax. Specifically, he stated: “I suspect that in the coming decade, any institution, department, or individual that cannot demonstrate a clear, positive contribution is going to get axed. My concern is that the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater. There is a lot of good in military education, but if you let the bad persist, it will drag down the rest.”

How to avoid having the baby tossed out the door is an important question that must be addressed. I believe the first step is to separate the military requirements of Joint Professional Military Education, and the academic degrees which ostensibly testify to rigor, now concurrently conferred by the War Colleges.

The problem is in defining what constitutes rigor and value -- demonstrating a clear, positive contribution --  and to whom. Understandably, the military defines “value” as having the best-trained officers available to be operationally deployed as much as possible. By that definition, costly career time spent in schoolhouses should be compressed, and/or focused on training for operations. On behalf of the Nation, however, Congress has in its Goldwater-Nichols legislation defined “value” in terms of senior military leaders who are “intellectually agile,” with adequate time provided in schoolhouses to transition from being operationally proficient to having the knowledge and education to be strategic, critical thinkers.

Trying to kludge together these very different goals of getting officers quickly-training and back into operations, and having them be well-educated strategic thinkers, has resulted in War College academic programs where, even with no academic standards for student admission, there is virtually a 100 percent success rate.  No one fails. Programmatic goals become set by the need to get officers back in the field, with both a Master’s degree and certified as Joint Professional Military Education II “qualified,” which is necessary for promotion to higher ranks.

Any program with a 100% success rate, however, will inherently have its rigor and value questioned.

What it takes to be operationally successful can be very different from what it takes to be a strategic, critical thinker. Admiral James Stavridis gave his take on the difference in his 2011 commencement address at National War College.

I knew what I was good at and what I knew well: driving a destroyer or a cruiser; navigating through tight waters; leading a boarding party up a swinging ladder; planning an air defense campaign; leading Sailors on the deck plates of a rolling ship. But I also sensed what I did not know or understand well: global politics and grand strategy; the importance of the ‘logistics nation'; how the interagency community worked; what the levers of power and practice were in the world—in essence, how everything fits together in producing security for the United States and our partners.

But since all senior officers are required to attend War College, there is no sifting of the different types of individuals – those not just proficient at operational skills, but also with the potential to be strategic thinkers. Nor, necessarily, should there be. American military officers face the most complex global environment ever, and are often the face of America in far off places; they are de facto diplomats as well as warfighters. Therefore, all officers should have the opportunity to have a well-rounded education and to better understand that environment. But there is no way around it: some will do better than others in graduate level education programs.

Curiously, one suggestion for injecting more rigor into War College programs has been to do away with grades. The rationale, apparently, is that military officers “are different” and therefore some will not succeed in an academic program and so shouldn’t be bothered with trivialities like grades. That rationale, however, is too often used to avoid comparisons and standards. Note that no one is suggested doing away with the degrees, of course -- just the grades. Doing away with grades and still passing every officer does nothing for rigor, and would only exacerbate current problems.

Further, accreditation for the Master’s degree would be put at risk, if not outright revoked. If that happened, the students would undoubtedly revert to past ways, when they attended War Colleges knowing they would all pass, consequently pay minimal attention to the curriculum, and instead enroll in and focus on a local graduate night school program to get a Master’s degree they all know will be more valuable post retirement than some box-check certificate.

Also, many of the War College students I have worked with in my career have been more concerned about single point differentiations between grades than students in civilian institutions. Whereas most civilian institutions give letter grades – an 86-89 are all a B+ --  numerical grades are more often awarded in PME because that’s what the students want.

It has also been suggested that the War Colleges simply be closed, and officers sent to civilian schools. General David Petraeus went to Princeton, and that seems to have worked for him. 

But this has always been a non-starter of an argument. There simply aren’t enough spots in top civilian academic programs for the literally thousands of officers required to attend. Consequently, officers would end up attending second, third and fourth tier schools taking courses not relevant to their careers as security professionals, and missing the opportunity to interact with their peers from the other military services that occurs in War College seminars.

Worse yet, they might all simply be told to get a degree online in their spare time – of which they have little as it stands already. This would be a clear signal that quality was irrelevant.  Civilian academic institutions are not above creating watered down programs to get military students through quickly and easily, whether online or in classrooms, which would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Setting different standards for passing the JPME requirements of War College and attaining the Master’s degree at War College would serve multiple purposes. For one, doing so would allow for injecting and enforcing far more rigor into PME programs. Right now, War Colleges design their curricula, both for a graduate degree and for the far less demanding JPME requirements, so they can be taught by anyone (and especially by former military officers). PME is steeped in military retirees not only as faculty – where some serve well, while the skill sets of others have a fast half-life -- but as administrators overseeing areas on which they have no background. That has resulted in some nasty situations where unqualified individuals teach courses based on opinion rather than knowledge --  witness the course previously taught at the Joint Forces Staff College (JFSC) advocating the use of nuclear weapons to fight Islam.

 Additionally, if JPME and the awarding of the Master’s Degree were separated, those aspects of the program key for strategic thinking and important at the higher ranks could be taught with real rigor, rather than as a hand wave. Skills such as writing – a requirement abhorred by many military officers because they have little experience with writing beyond bullet points, and so are usually not good at it – and critical analysis could be taught and tested beyond the basics, which is where they barely are offered now.  

The Master’s degree would be reserved for those who actually demonstrated accomplishment in those areas of advanced studies being taught. Students could work harder while still staying focused on the War College curriculum rather than somebody else’s night school program.

JPME, by contrast, would be pass/fail -- as it effectively is today -- with everyone passing so that no  officer’s career would be hurt by not being as academically adept as others. While it can be argued that all mid/upper level officers should be able to pass a (at least mildly) rigorous Master’s course they are paid to attend full time, the service powers-that-be are currently unwilling to risk that. Perhaps the problem is over-inflation of rank requirements for billets, but that’s another issue.  The question here is how to best accommodate reality and still be able to have a credible, academically rigorous PME program.

The War Colleges must be maintained. For most officers, they provide the only opportunity and pathway for operational leaders to receive the broadened educational background they will need as senior strategic leaders and hence able to maintain their own in strategic planning with the best and the brightest civilians they will likely encounter in future career paths. Congress specifically and intentionally reinvigorated the War Colleges with provisions of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act because military voices were being excluded from strategic discussions. The intent was to move military education away from what Samuel Huntington in The Soldier and the State had earlier called the “technicism” – concentration on a technical specialty – prominent in military culture.  Technicism, however, is what the services were and are largely comfortable with and want, and understandably so given the increasing military reliance on increasingly sophisticated and complex technology. As technical experts in operations, however, with few exceptions they had little to contribute to strategic planning. But their voices are necessary. 

Military officers who sit at the conference tables where strategic decisions are made (and those who sit along the back wall and assist their bosses at the table) and those working in distant countries with often very different cultures than their own must have the education required to put operational objectives and obstacles into the context of the larger strategic environment. That does not come through tactical excellence, pilot training or time at sea. And admittedly, education alone will not suffice if culture and ideology impairs judgment – as demonstrated at JFSC -- but education will lessen those instances.

But if the War Colleges want Congress to recognize their value and therefor protect their budgets, the War Colleges must respect and fulfill the Professional Military Education goals set in Goldwater-Nichols.  That means a demonstration of rigor beyond a program where everybody goes and everyone graduates.

“Permission to Speak Freely?”: Academic Freedom in Professional Military Education

Fri, 06/29/2012 - 5:30am

In a recent report the US House Armed Services Committee found that academic freedom was a major concern at professional military education (PME) institutions around the country. The committee discovered that there are a variety of procedures in place among the nation’s military colleges regarding faculty publications.  While some institutions choose to allow faculty to publish freely, others require a thorough content review to ensure publications fit a certain style and viewpoint.  On its face, it would appear that administrative interference with faculty freedom of expression is a clear violation of the common standards of academic freedom.  But the desire for academic freedom must be balanced against both the need for information security and the desire to maintain and sustain publication quality.  Often times PME faculty and administrators view these two objectives as contradictory.  But with proper guidance the desire for open academic inquiry and quality enhancement be can mutually reinforcing, ultimately resulting in a better research product.

According to the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure faculty “are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of (their) results.”  Additionally, when speaking or writing as citizens “(faculty) should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.”  The cause, of course, is noble.  Allowing faculty to engage in groundbreaking research and offer up critical, thoughtful analysis of controversial findings encourages scientific advancement.  Researchers are free to question common knowledge and develop new ideas and concepts in an environment of open intellectual contestation.  The rights conferred upon a faculty member by tenure codify their protection from retaliation for politically unpopular opinions.

Yet, in professional military education there are several complicating factors that make academic freedom in the traditional sense difficult to apply.  First and foremost is the lack of a tenure system.  PME schools have long debated the merits of adopting tenure for experienced faculty but have ultimately chosen to eschew the practice in favor of flexibility.  This is for good reason. The demand for expertise in a particular region or technical specialty fluctuates with changes in the international security environment.  A tenure process would inhibit the ability of PME institutions to shift intellectual resources to new fields more pertinent to today’s missions.  It does little good, for instance, to have a PME school staffed with an aging contingent of Kremlinologists when the military is focused on counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Second, PME faculty members are academic practitioners but also federal employees.  As such, the views and opinions expressed by professors through publication can be construed as official US government policy.  The line between official policy and personal opinion is often difficult to discern.  Lastly, as with any national security agency, there are issues with divulging classified information.  Often professors at military institutions have access to documents and data that is not intended for open dissemination.  While this information may inform one’s research there is always the risk that such material could inadvertently be released to the public.

The tension between the military and civilian education traditions manifests itself in the schizophrenic nature of PME academic freedom practices.  Some schools allow all views and opinions to be published openly, albeit with the requisite classified information review.  Others review publishable material to ensure that official US policy is stated correctly, and that the author’s opinions are clearly delineated from government official policy.   A few schools conduct informational reviews meant as an informal means of keeping up with faculty viewpoints and ensuring “no surprises” when the publication hits the press.  Finally, there are at least rumors of institutions that review the content of their faculty’s work with the intent of suppressing opinions and policy recommendations that run counter to the interests of their service or the institution.  Often it can be challenging as a faculty member to determine which type of review one’s work is undergoing.

It is unclear how much these activities inhibit faculty research.  But the mere illusion of censorship can cast a dark shadow over the aspirations of young faculty members.  Though overt suppression may be rare, there is at least the fear that professors are “self-censoring” their own research findings in order to strip away controversial, and potentially innovative, ideas.  Herein lies the real problem.  If faculty members perceive that their work will go unpublished, they have little incentive to “think outside the box” by taking on difficult issues and proposing novel solutions to national security problems.  Instead, what we are left with is a group of institutions sitting on a wealth of intellectual capital unable, or unwilling, to tap these resources to solve the myriad of national security challenges facing our military.

Ultimately it is up to the leaders of each institution to decide how to balance their academic and military responsibilities.   But PME leaders need to recognize the value that comes with allowing open, honest discussions on what are inevitably sensitive political subjects.  This type of attitude is already readily accepted inside their classrooms where non-attribution policies protect the students from recrimination from their superiors.  This same attitude needs to be applied to faculty publications as well.

At the very least, it is incumbent upon the administration of each school to develop and adhere to their own standardized publication guidelines.  These guidelines should include a clear definition of academic freedom, a precise explanation of the publication review process, and a broad commitment to the principles of open and honest intellectual inquiry.  The policy should be shared across the institution in order to encourage transparency among those involved in the review process. Clarifying the rules of the road (and adhering to these rules) will encourage faculty to be creative within the institutional framework.  This will inevitably lead to more innovative policy recommendations and hopefully more successful national security solutions. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.