Washington — Even as many academics impatiently await the end of the Bush administration, Robert M. Gates, the secretary of defense, is offering university presidents detailed proposals for closer ties between his agency and academe, in areas like studying terrorists and China’s military.
In a speech on Monday to the Association of American Universities, Mr. Gates offered warm and conciliatory words for academe, calling it “this pillar of American society.” He said his remarks had been shaped by his stint as president of Texas A&M University from 2002 to 2006.
Mr. Gates even invoked the words of the liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who said after Sputnik’s launch, in 1957, that the United States “must return to the acceptance of eggheads and ideas if it is to meet the Russian challenge.” The same is true today, Mr. Gates said, if America is to confront new threats.
He said his agency was developing a proposal to finance a new “Minerva Consortium,” named for the goddess of wisdom, of universities to carry out social-sciences research relevant to national security. Among the group’s tasks could be predicting the likely evolution of jihadist extremism, he said.
Mr. Gates promised that such a consortium would operate under “complete openness and rigid adherence to academic freedom and integrity,” and he said the department would accept criticism. Without mentioning the Iraq war, he said, “Too many mistakes have been made over the years because our government and military did not understand — or even seek to understand — the countries or cultures we were dealing with.”
Of course, many academics are wary of closer ties to the military. Mr. Gates acknowledged that fact while defending the Human Terrain System, a controversial effort under which anthropologists have advised combat units in war zones.
Mr. Gates also said that some veterans in return view academe with suspicion because of a perceived lack of support for them and their service. Colleges should respond by, for example, offering veterans scholarships and online courses, Mr. Gates suggested. The mutual suspicion “is not good for our men and women in uniform, for our universities, or for our country.”
Mr. Gates also worked in a quip about his earlier stint, under President George H.W. Bush, as director of the Central Intelligence Agency: “When I was president of Texas A&M University, I used to wonder whether it was scarier to be responsible for a vast, global network of spies as I had been at CIA — or be responsible for some 45,000 students between the ages of 18 and 25.” —Jeffrey Brainard