The Chronicle Review

It's Time for a Scholarly Truce With Military Academies

Dave Cutler for The Chronicle Review

October 09, 2011

"Who are the Libyan rebels?"

In late March I posted that question to an e-mail list devoted to the sociology of Islam. I posted from my e-mail address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, in New London, Conn., where I am a civilian assistant professor of political theory.

Within hours a stream of e-mails began—not answering my question, but debating what the relationship should be between the list's members and the U.S. military. In fact, the first e-mail I received said, "In my humble opinion, this mailing list is NOT for gathering intelligence on behalf of government-related institutions, even less for military institutions."

A few e-mails helpfully debated why I had called them "rebels" rather than "revolutionaries" and alerted me to the politics of naming from the perspective of some Middle East scholars. Yet only three of the dozens of e-mails posted over the next week gave any bibliographic sources, and one of those was a patronizing recommendation to read the BBC newsfeed. Left unanswered, of course, was, "Who are the Libyan rebels?"

Nonetheless, the tempest raised an important question: What should the relationship be between civilian universities and their military brethren? For well over two decades, many universities suspended both their ROTC programs and on-campus military-recruiting privileges, initially because of the Vietnam War and the draft and then, in the 1990s, because of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Now, with the repeal of that policy, many campuses, including Harvard and Yale, are re-establishing their military relationships. Yet these institutional liaisons have not been sufficiently considered in light of the war on terror.

Yale University, for example, has on its faculty Gen. Stanley McChrystal and John Negroponte, a former deputy secretary of state, as well as being the site of Tony Blair's Faith and Globalization Initiative. These men are, from the perspective of many academics, titans of the much maligned war on terror. Yet, tellingly, when I post questions from my e-mail address at Yale, from which I hold a degree and where I previously worked and taught, I have never been interrogated about my intentions.

There is perhaps a misunderstanding about the role of the military-service academies in the cultivation of U.S. foreign policy. Most of the policy decisions of the U.S. government are made by a rather elite civilian oligarchy at the State Department, not by members of the U.S. military and certainly not by faculty members at service academies. The service academies (the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.; U.S. Navy Academy in Annapolis, Md.; U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.; and U.S. Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Colo.) are each four-year degree-granting institutions at which all undergraduate students are simultaneously on active duty in the U.S. armed forces.

Indignant members of the e-mail list were suspicious that their knowledge, if shared with faculty members at the service academies, would be distorted, appropriated, or in some way used to promote agendas to which they are not sympathetic. Indeed, some junior scholars worried in offline correspondence that communications with me could jeopardize their careers. "Listserv watchdogs will blacklist them, making it difficult for them to get published, become qualified for grants/fellowships, taken into consideration for academic/research positions due to their political leanings," one participant explained. There is no doubt that the State Department has focused on academics with whom it has real or imagined disagreement—recall the embarrassing denial of Tariq Ramadan's visa. But that was a civilian, not a military, decision. And with university presidents on corporate boards, part and parcel of what has been dubbed the academic-industrial complex, civilian universities are certainly as complicit as the service academies, if not more so, in the nation's power hierarchy.

One list member recommended that the list follow the protocol of her center, which developed a statement regarding its relationship with military and government institutions:

"The Center for African Studies does not collaborate with military or intelligence agencies of any government in any fashion. Our mission—to develop and disseminate knowledge regarding Africa and Africans—cannot be reconciled with the goals, the methods, or the structure of such institutions. We urge our members and the bodies to which we belong to adopt a similar principle." 

 As others on the e-mail list noted, the particular university that includes that center also houses a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence on its campus, giving the statement a rather hollow ring. Surely there is a more sophisticated way to consider academic-military relations than asserting that one's institution is not polluted by relations with the state. That might include asking questions about how power circulates between academe and the military and how expertise can be an instrument of change and not just a source for appropriation by government-affiliated institutions.

A less compelling way to further the relationship between service-academy faculty members and their civilian counterparts is to argue for the goodness and honesty of the individuals involved. In the case of the e-mail list, there was a series of messages from colleagues and former students defending me and my work at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. I was the kind of person who would not be sullied by my association with the military. I am someone whom others can trust. Or so these e-mails attested. In fact, one of the members of the list indicated that he had found pieces of my curriculum vitae online and said he believed I would "maintain [my] integrity regardless of ... institutional affiliation."

While I appreciated the endorsements, this seems an insufficient approach to the communication gap, because it implies an infectious-disease model of contact. It suggests that one needs to be somehow inoculated to work in these martially contaminated environments. Service-academy faculties are deemed polluted, guilty until proven innocent.

Some e-mail correspondents argued that in this economy one is lucky to get a job, any job, even if that means accepting one at a military institution. But while the attempt at open-mindedness is appreciated, the assumption, again, is that such an affiliation is sullying.

We can surely develop a more nuanced appreciation of how knowledge and education work to bolster democracy and how scholars deal with powerful institutions. Anyone who has held a tenure-track position and worked for that golden ring is acutely aware of the challenges of maintaining integrity while seeking promotion. Indeed, an academic dean at another institution once described the period before tenure as "the last rite of passage in modernity which entails a prolonged infantilization of well-educated adults." I've yet to hear a persuasive case that such maneuvering is more baroque at a military academy than at civilian colleges.

I wish that more of my colleagues from civilian universities would work at military academies. If more of us thought of teaching at service academies as political work, social justice, or simply academic responsibility, then the critical mass of intellectuals at these institutions would begin to create a more robust democratic exchange—something members of the e-mail list argued was absent between civilian and military faculties. Neither group can expect much from the other when one knows so little about an institution that she or he mistakes its academic faculty for members of the intelligence community.

If there were more civilian faculty members working at these institutions, there would be greater transparency between us and our civilian-college counterparts. Service-academy faculties would be less likely to be seen as creatures from the deep. Or, as one of the e-mails opined, "working on the dark side ... until they have returned, so to speak, to the light." That bias may reflect, in part, the culture of privilege that permeates much of academe. For all of the rhetoric of diversity at many universities, class remains a still salient if silent marker. It is class, perhaps, more than any other demographic analytic that distinguishes the faculty and student populations at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy from their counterparts at Yale.

The military academies are educating and training the next generation of officers. If academics agree about little else, they seem to agree that this is a constituency that will potentially exercise considerable power. Their education should not be left to those who may mistakenly imagine that training is the same as education. From Socrates to John Dewey to Martha Nussbaum, scholars have made persuasive arguments about the necessity of critical thinking to resist the force of blind tradition and authority. They've effectively asserted, in other words, the importance of education for the cultivation of democracy. Where could it be more important to maintain that tradition of civic education than at military academies? They are influential institutions that civilian academics should not concede so readily to those with whom they disagree. With the professionalization of the military and the suspension of conscription, it is more important than ever that civilian academics become a part of the service-academy infrastructure.

Moreover, by working with the military, our intellectual endeavors can have a new sense of urgency and purpose. Since I've arrived at the academy, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been at the forefront. My work on the task force for the repeal has reconfigured my understanding of military cultures and their possibilities for transformation. There is a sense in the military, particularly among undergraduate cadets, that what they study before they become officers will influence their careers for a lifetime. I'm not sure their civilian counterparts are equally confident of the relevance of their education.

I sometimes worry how 20 years of military service might distort cadets' sense of the world (but I worry, equally, about how 20 years on Wall Street will also distort the worldviews of today's elite business-oriented civilian students). But educating these servicemen and servicewomen is democratic work, and like all education, it will, I hope, inform and temper the harsh lessons of life that await them.

I have been teaching at the Coast Guard Academy for only two years, but so far, at least, I have not once been asked to modify what I teach, what I say, or what I study in response to military protocol. Indeed, when I was first hired, the dean of academics said at faculty orientation: "In my opinion, if you're not making cadets uncomfortable ... you're not doing your job." I suppose he thinks of the classroom as academic boot camp. I think of it more like Michel Foucault did, teaching undergraduates how to think the unthinkable, to ask themselves: What are the borders beyond which they cannot imagine?

I'd ask my fellow academics who are reflexively hostile to the service academies the very same thing. And then I'd ask them to come teach cadets. The possibilities for democratic action abound.

Melissa Matthes is an assistant professor in the government and humanities department of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and formerly executive director of the Initiative on Religion and Politics at Yale University's Divinity School. The views here are her own and not those of the Coast Guard Academy or other branches of the U.S. government.