Mending the Marriage Between Colleges and the Military

August 18, 2014

In the military it is common to hear one senior officer refer to another as a classmate from an elite university. Logical questions that might follow include: What year did you graduate? With what degree? Was it a graduate or undergraduate program? But the reality is that all too often those questions aren’t relevant, because the officers simply attended the same executive education seminar. The attendees were selected by their military services and their tuition was paid by the Department of Defense to attend these short (approximately one to eight weeks) courses.

In trying to leverage these credentials, otherwise accomplished military professionals foster the false impression that they possess scholarly expertise in national security policy. By doing so they perpetuate an unspoken alliance between the military and some elite institutions like Harvard and Syracuse Universities and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The military supports continuing contracts to send senior officers to elite universities to enhance their military résumés, and, in return, participating universities arrange lectures by prominent public intellectuals and host networking events across the institution. In short, the military offers its money; the university offers its name.

The cost of these programs is not astronomical, but it is not inconsequential, either. For example, one such 12-day seminar costs more than $10,000 per student. The course is offered twice a year and enrolls approximately 45 to 50 students, the majority of whom are military or Department of Defense civilians. The direct costs for this seminar to the Department of Defense could approach $1-million per year. Moreover, this figure excludes indirect expenses like travel costs and the human-capital costs of paying someone to attend a course. This is one of dozens of course offerings at a single university, and the pattern repeats itself at other universities each year.

What’s more, depending on the program, support might come through multiyear renewable government contracts. These are particularly attractive to universities because they offer a reliable supplemental revenue stream, so to enhance their bids they will hire retired senior military officers as mentors, design curricula that feature some well-known faculty as lecturers, and offer the latest in state-of-the art facilities.

Theoretically, the students selected to attend these programs are senior leaders chosen to deepen their knowledge of issues they will face in subsequent assignments. In reality, the personnel systems are not this precise. Students are just as frequently selected because "it’s their turn," they need an elite university on their résumés, or the service needed to send someone to the course and their names came up.

Not only do the military services select the students, they also determine when they will attend, and even remove them from courses early to meet operational needs. The services, in other words, administer the contract through all stages, minus one: They do not systematically assess what their students learned as part of this executive-education experience. Without this type of feedback, there is no way to know if the universities are accomplishing their educational objectives.

Given the amount of money invested in these programs and the important opportunity they present, it is time to reinvent executive education for senior military leaders. This requires a conscious shift in the universities’ responsibilities from convening roles to educational ones. Specifically, universities should be required to design seminars geared to active adult learning; they should be small, and the demands on students to contribute should be high.

Some specific ideas to accomplish this overarching goal include, first, establishing prerequisites for those attending. Perhaps this is a mandatory reading list or essay to complete before the course starts. Students would be held accountable for this material from the first day of class.

Second, regardless of the length of the seminars, the curriculum should focus on dissecting and making arguments, as well as reading, writing, and speaking at an advanced graduate level. Military members spend much of their careers in hierarchical relationships, and as members advance in rank, opportunities for intellectually rich exchanges usually decline. Thus, executive seminars could be designed to offer unique, demanding peer-learning environments.

As a corollary, and third, teaching military leaders presents a great opportunity to explore some of the contentious issues of the day. The faculty should have the expertise, inclination, and agility to do so. Similarly, students should be prepared to engage in important conversations about who they are as military professionals and what they do for the nation.

Finally, university faculty members should give meaningful one-on-one assessments to their students. Executive-level students deserve, and need, candid feedback about where they excelled—or failed. This is one of the rare times in their careers when they will receive feedback from an accomplished professional outside of their chain of command.

The military, likewise, needs to be clear to its students about the purpose and expectations behind executive education. These opportunities offer an intellectually rich space to explore ideas that day-to-day career demands otherwise preclude; students should be delighted by the opportunity but cautioned not to make it into something more. It is an excellent chance to explore their profession from another perspective, not a scholarly undertaking leading to an academic credential.

Without a concerted effort to change, military services will continue in a misguided effort to buy academic credibility, and some elite universities will continue to sell their names. Most important, we will waste a unique opportunity to hone critical-thinking skills in the nation’s next generation of military leaders. By raising the standards on both sides, all benefit.

Paula Thornhill is a retired Air Force brigadier general and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. She served as commandant of the Air Force Institute of Technology and dean of faculty at the National War College.