Educating the U.S. Military: Is Real Change Possible?


Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our special series, “The Schoolhouse.” The aim of this series is to explore and debate the state of advanced graduate education in international affairs. We aim to move beyond the often-repetitive and tiresome debates about the usefulness of scholarship to policy. We believe there are deeper issues at stake. In this article, Joan Johnson-Freese addresses issues afflicting the sometimes-underrated and misunderstood field of professional military education.


Joint professional military education (JPME) in the United States needs to be fixed. And yet too few seem willing to take on the challenge. Through JPME members of the United States military learn professional skills, and as they progress in rank, they are prepared to transition from tactical to operational leaders, and eventually strategic leaders. Its importance was legislatively recognized when the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act mandated educational parameters for the military that have since developed into a continuum of learning. But alas, Congressional attention to PME has waned since its last champion and watchdog, Ike Skelton, left Congress in 2011.

Top military brass including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey say the right things. A 2012 speech by Dempsey at National Defense University was peppered with all the right words… “education is the strongest and most secure bridge to the future”…. “I want to ensure that our educational practices align with our needs and our expectations”… “education helps make military service the nation’s preeminent leadership experience.” He even called for “senior education leaders through the Military Education Coordination Council (MECC) to conduct a review… to update the value proposition of our joint professional education enterprise to meet — to determine whether we’ve got the attributes right, the outcomes rights [sic] that are demanded by the future security environment.”

The MECC, composed of representatives of the joint and service schools and any other JPME-accredited schools, is responsible for advising the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on scholarship and key educational issues. In effect, it controls military education.

But putting that task in the hands of the MECC virtually pre-determined that the review would be narrowly defined; and that except for a tweak here and there in the curriculum, everything would be found to be fine, just fine. Specifically, the MECC results focused on accessibility of educational programs, changes to teaching methodologies and assessment mechanisms, and enhanced use of technology. But expanding access and cognitive learning methodologies are bells and whistles until fundamental issues that have been raised by such groups and individuals as the House Armed Service Committee (2010), Howard Wiarda (2011), George Reed (2014), Nicholas Murray (2014), me and others have been addressed.

Issues that keep JPME institutions from truly excelling in both serving near-term warfighter needs and providing the strategic, critical-thinking-based education necessary for students’ future positions and challenges — specifically at degree-granting intermediate and senior level institutions — are chronicled in Christopher Lamb and Brittany Porro’s 2015 article in Joint Forces Quarterly. Problems break down into two key areas. First there are those of an institutional nature: who teaches what, how, and to what end. Then there are also those of a systemic nature: support for and management of JPME. Many or most of these issues are, however, continually ignored by the MECC, the Pentagon body responsible for military education. The MECC seems to have received its guidance from Britain’s late 19th century prime minister, Lord Salisbury: “Whatever happens will be for the worse. Therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.”

The Office of the Secretary of Defense has taken an interest in JPME, but has been effectively stiff-armed by the powerful MECC and MECC Working Group, comprised of status-quo staffers in the Joint Force Development directorate of the Pentagon and mid-level institutional administrators, few with any background in education or teaching beyond their JPME experience. The Office of the Secretary of Defense submitted over 40 recommendations to the MECC in 2014, and all were summarily declined. Trying to instigate change by working within a system committed to the status quo has proven frustrating for the people nominally in charge of the Pentagon. Therefore, unless much-needed structural authority for PME changes within the Pentagon, if institutional change is to occur, it must start and be implemented at the institutional level.

So can anybody really institute change in JPME? It appears that there is one position where, under the right conditions and with the right person, change can occur. Provosts can make a difference.

Leadership within JPME institutions is multi-leveled. Presidents and commandants are, appropriately, active duty flag officers. They are largely hamstrung by short tenures (the Naval War College has had 8 presidents since I arrived in 2002) in positions with steep learning curves and administrative bureaucracies happily settled in place that keep them perpetually busy, distracted and sometimes stonewalled. Motivations to take on challenges vary as well, as some institutional leaders are ready for retirement while others are still seeking promotion and so must be cognizant of the dangers of too much boat rocking. Those who attempt to run a college with a my-way-or-the highway approach will find themselves stymied, and those who attempt change against the grain of their underlings can be slow-rolled until the next person comes along.

Below the president are an ever-expanding bevy of civilian administrators, mostly retired military or career bureaucrats with doctorates but little or no experience in education. Only occasionally is a scholar with teaching and administrative experience in civilian academia involved. Administrators include a provost, often one or more assistant or associate provosts, and a multitude of deans, associate deans, assistant deans and directors. These are the individuals within the institutions — and often the institutional representatives to the MECC — with the greatest interest in maintaining the status quo. Their ranks have swelled in recent years partly due to increased demands for data and expanded missions — which more often than not serve largely to distract from the core mission of teaching — but also as a power-in-numbers self-protection mechanism.

The easiest route for a provost is to align with the status-quo cabal, and the pressure can be substantial. Addressing issues that would result in real change would inherently involve changing organizational culture — always difficult — and would potentially threaten jobs. Both of these generate resistance that can make a provost’s life uncomfortable.

Goldwater-Nichols demands military officers complete joint professional military education. The military needs these officers. That has created a “too big to fail” situation where, although Harvard has an acceptance rate of about six percent and JPME institutions have no academic admissions qualifications, the graduation rate at JPME institutions — with a master’s degree — is equal to or higher than at Harvard (97 percent). Any educator — or reasonable person — will recognize how this threatens the credibility of the JPME educational programs, and calls into question the learning that goes on in JPME — learning strategically important to the future of our country.

Issues most often left to the provost cover a substantial range. They include pedagogical issues such as what is appropriate to include in the curriculum and appropriate teaching methods. This means moving away from the standard military training approach of faculty telling the students what they will tell them, telling them, and telling them what they were told. It also means more than the new “education” version of JPME teaching, by sitting back and asking students “what do you think?” regarding a topic they (and sometimes the faculty) know little about. They also include operational issues such as hiring practices, allowing academics’ input into academic decision-making through a self-selected, empowered faculty senate rather than the carefully culled advisory committees named by administrators, and merit-based tenure. Both types of issues challenge embedded ways of operation at JPME institutions. Rice bowls are further affected when questions begin to be asked about who is qualified for teaching, research and administrative positions; diversity issues, going beyond the demographics of faculties overwhelmingly comprised of white males over 50 years old and getting into inclusivity issues; and whether often blatant sexism. Attempting to break the status quo can make a provost a target.

If, however, a provost — who often will have up to eight years in that position — has the inclination to institute change, real change can occur. His or her responsibility for oversight, hiring ability, ability to internally reorganize for change that position affords (including eliminating superfluous administrative positions), and the ability to select who will represent the institution at the MECC, can make change happen. One other precondition is requisite as well: While a president or commandant rarely can or will institute change, he or she can stop it. If a president aligns with the cabal of lesser administrators, a provost can be effectively put in a box. But support — even benign neglect — from the top allows a provost considerable leeway.

It appears that the planets may have aligned toward beta testing real reform at the National Defense University. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Frederick Padilla, who assumed command in November 2014, and Provost John Yaeger are working together, conducting a sweeping Education Transformation Plan with the potential to result in real change. Lamb and Porro outline the plan in the JFQ article. I received an email from an NDU faculty member participating in the Transformation Plan effort asking if I could provide him with the Naval War College student failure policy. Student failure policy? I am not aware that the Naval War College has either a policy, or of students who fail. It bodes well if the National Defense University is actually even acknowledging that issue.

The obstacles ahead for the National Defense University are significant. Conducting a study on what to do is relatively easy; implementing it is much more difficult. Perhaps its location in Washington and the negative attention past issues have drawn — including from Tom Ricks in his popular blog — prompted or exacerbated the impetus for change there. Perhaps only crisis can prompt change in PME. Since Yaeger preceded Padilla and will likely outlast him, the pressure — and responsibility — to succeed is largely on him. A success at the National Defense University, and provosts willing to take on the tough issues at other institutions, could result in the kind of bottom-up effort that seems the only way Gen. Dempsey will get the kind of military education programs he wants, and which the students and the nation need, for the future.


Joan Johnson-Freese is a Professor and former Chair of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. She has written extensively on Professional Military Education, including her critically acclaimed 2013 book Educating America’s Military. The views in this article are those of the author alone, and not the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy or the Naval War College.


Photo credit: U.S. Naval War College