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War-College Woes

America’s war colleges are in the news with accusations that Sen. John E. Walsh of Montana plagiarized passages in his master’s thesis at the U.S. Army War College. But the problems of such institutions go deeper, often with their own distinctive wrinkle on ailments common to academe.

Even before Benjamin Ginsberg’s 2011 book, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, the problematic growth of academic administrators was a perennial hot topic in academe. Ginsberg’s book triggered a number of studies of the extent of administrative bloat, and what aspects of education it affects, including a 2014 report by the Delta Cost Project titled “Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive: Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education”; and a report from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting that looked at, among other things, the effect of administrative growth on tuition costs.

Degree-granting Professional Military Education (PME) institutions that are responsible for educating military officers, such as the war colleges, have been omitted from those studies’ consideration. But given the educational mission of the war colleges, developing critical thinkers by providing rigorous and relevant education to rising officers, their success is imperative. PME institutions, and the war colleges in particular, have largely escaped outside scrutiny by chanting the mantra “we’re different” and having that view unquestioningly accepted, even by accreditation committees.

War colleges are different. They are, appropriately, more a professional school than a liberal-arts college. They also have no academic admissions standards, many of their faculty members have no teaching experience or education in the subject matter they are teaching (officers with engineering or technical backgrounds piloting planes one week might find themselves teaching economics, international relations, or history the next), and virtually all students graduate with a master’s in national-security studies in 10 months, at a cost to taxpayers of $56,000 to $160,000 per student, depending on which war college is attended.

The importance of the war colleges’ mission cannot be overstated. Graduates will largely move on to strategic-level staff positions in Washington, D.C., and at geographic commands around the world, where they will be working with, and being asked for their input on national security by, their civilian counterparts and superiors. Those military officers must have a firm foundation in the vernacular and substance of national security. Whether they are getting that, however, is questionable.

When I began as a department chair at the Naval War College, in 2002, administrative meetings were attended by the president, the provost (dual-hatted as academic dean), the three department chairs, and depending on the agenda, the director of the distance-education program. By 2010 administrative meetings had to be broken into multiple parts due to the number of individuals involved. Beyond the increased numbers of administrators within academe, their qualifications were an issue as well, an issue exacerbated at war colleges.

Ginsberg addressed administrator qualifications in his book. The gist was that traditionally administrators were older academics who saw administration as an honorable way to finish their careers. Today, though, they tend to be much younger individuals without a prior academic career or with a failed academic career, people who are looking for an alternative career path. The former, traditional types, were accomplished academics; the latter are bureaucrats.

The problem at war colleges is a variation of that described by Ginsberg. War-college presidents are always, and should be, active-duty general officers. These are military institutions dependent upon the good graces of higher-ups for funding, and so the president must be well connected to top military leaders. Though sometimes war-college presidents set out to leave their “stamp” on the institutions, day-to-day operations are largely left to administrators with tenure longer than the typical two- to four-year presidential assignment.

Those administrative positions are largely populated by retired military officers with little or no background in education, or by civilians with doctoral degrees but no experience in academic administration or even academic life—including hiring, promotion, tenure, publication, or mentoring junior faculty members, or sometimes even teaching. Indeed, experience in those areas can be considered a mark against candidates applying for administrative positions because individuals with academic experience are likely to challenge preferred ways of doing business.

There is an expression in the military that “ducks pick ducks.” To a military officer, that means aviators support aviators, submariners support submariners, etc., for promotion. At war colleges it means administrators tend to hire clones of themselves in an effort to keep out anyone who can speak from experience of making decisions about issues like how a tenure committee works, qualifications for tenure, faculty involvement in administrative hiring, even year-end evaluation criteria.

The recruitment committee currently charged with recommending a new provost for the Naval War College did not include anyone from academic departments until faculty members complained, and it remains heavy with retired military members.

Many administrators have no idea of the difference between a university-press published book, a commercially published book, or a vanity-press book, considering them all “a book” for faculty evaluation and promotion purposes. An article in International Security might not be differentiated from an op-ed in the Providence Journal when evaluating faculty publications. Professional service is narrowly interpreted to mean service to the war college or to the Defense Department, not the profession, because administrators don’t understand which, how, or why organizations are important to whom.

Problems with too many administrators’ having little or no experience in education or academe, let alone academic administration, begin with faculty hiring and retention, and spill over into student education. Hiring top faculty members to work for individuals who often neither understand nor appreciate professional academic norms can be difficult. Mentoring by administrators is virtually nonexistent under those circumstances. Most faculty members are on three- to four-year contracts, with tenure offered only occasionally and sporadically, and often with little transparency.

A 2013-14 committee named at the Naval War College to create a tenure process was composed almost exclusively of administrators who had never held a tenure-track position or been tenured. One practitioner/bureaucrat advocated including “collegiality” as a key consideration for tenure. With faculty members’ contract renewal based largely on student evaluations, and the inability of most administrators to interpret a CV, that provision will understandably be read by many faculty members as a trapdoor to minimize merit considerations and maximize what the military favors instead: being a “team player.”

Some war colleges have formed or are considering forming faculty senates to give faculty members “a voice.” One area where they need a voice is in the hiring of administrators, which will be a difficult sell through any channel. Although for the first time faculty members beyond the recruitment committee were recently allowed to meet with finalists for the provost’s position at the Naval War College, a token academic was added to the recruitment committee only after faculty protests over the dominance of retired military members.

The spillover to the students comes from faculty members’ cowering to both the students who evaluate them and the administrators who will renew their contracts based on those student evaluations. If the purpose of education is to challenge students’ thinking, then faculty members must have the ability to do so without fear of reprisal. Educators think in terms of challenging students; bureaucrats do not.

Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, in Newport, R.I. She is the author of Educating America’s Military (Routledge, 2013).

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