In recent weeks, the relationship between the national security state and the academy has come under increasing scrutiny. This debate is important because universities play an essential role in educating the national security workforce and informing national security decision-making. Some commentators have deplored the apparent inability of the U.S. intelligence community to improve its workforce, leading to what one observer calls their ignorance. In their recent piece on the “most militarized universities in America,” journalists William Arkin and Alexa O’Brien hold that the perceived lack of critical thinking and area studies skills in the intelligence community is indicative of “a crisis in national security education.”
The problem with these critiques is that they overlook substantial evidence to the contrary. The diverse offerings of national security programs and the multiple spaces through which the intelligence community interacts with the academy suggests that there is no such crisis, either in education or the intelligence community. National security education is undergoing a renaissance that may well contribute to solve some of the intelligence community’s creativity problems.
Research by one of us and another colleague on 17 American degree-granting intelligence studies programs founded between 1995 and 2012 shows that students are encouraged to learn about other cultures and develop an inquisitive mindset. Sixteen new intelligence studies programs have been established since 2000; seven of them in the last five years alone. These programs can be found in 13 states, serving both active military and traditional college students, and offering both undergraduate and graduate degrees.
An analysis of hundreds of course descriptions from these programs identified significant coursework in area studies and foreign languages. Since many intelligence programs are housed in liberal arts colleges, language courses often are a requirement. Some universities go even further. For example, students in Embry-Riddle’s University-Prescott’s B.S. in Global Security and Intelligence Studies can select a Chinese language and culture track.
For decades, the government has supported students willing to study critical languages thanks to the Boren Awards. A host of university programs provide content focused on cultural issues, such as Bellevue University’s M.S. in International Security and Intelligence Studies. At the University of Texas at El Paso (where we teach), students of the Intelligence and National Security Studies program are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in foreign cultures through a study abroad program that brought them to Taiwan, Estonia, Jordan, and Turkey.
Intelligence and national security programs also tend to offer coursework in critical thinking and advanced analytical techniques. Such courses explore common cognitive biases and how to avoid them, and they familiarize students with design thinking exercises supposed to develop their creativity. In our own courses, we make extensive use of case studies that encourage our students to consider what lessons can be learnt from intelligence failures.
The renaissance of national security studies can be traced back to the federal government’s effort to reform the intelligence community and reshape its workforce in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In 2005, following a congressional mandate, the government launched the Intelligence Community Center for Academic Excellence (IC CAE) program. This program funded dozens of university programs to increase the pool of intelligence job applicants who are multi-disciplinary, as well as culturally and ethnically diverse. In the last decade, a majority of IC CAE grants have been awarded to minority-serving institutions. Other programs like the National Security Agency’s (NSA) Centers for Academic Excellence in Information Assurance (first launched in 1998) have pursued similar goals with a stronger emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math education.
Intelligence agencies have developed a series of formal channels to reach out to the academy. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Intelligence Council maintain active fellows programs, and the National Security Agency hosts a scholar-in-residence. Outside the intelligence community, the Council on Foreign Relations maintains a program that allows academics to embed in government agencies, including intelligence agencies. These initiatives allow for the exchange of ideas, familiarize national security scholars with “real-world” constraints, and provide agencies with outside expertise on a range of issues.
Numerous venues provide spaces for intelligence practitioners to interact with scholars in more informal ways. A host of practitioners, including the current Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, regularly attend and speak at the International Studies Association Annual Convention. More specialized events, like the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Five Eyes Analytical Workshops and the annual conference of the International Association for Intelligence Education, bring together practitioners, scholars, and students of national security from diverse backgrounds to discuss some of the latest developments in the field.
These interactions have been grossly overlooked by recent critiques, and so has the work of a variety of educators throughout the nation who strive to broaden the horizons of current and future national security practitioners. The intelligence community has long understood the need to tap into the pool of knowledge and expertise offered by the academy; whether it has done so effectively is another question.
Stephen Coulthart, Ph.D. and Damien Van Puyvelde, Ph.D. are Assistant Professors of Security Studies at the National Security Studies Institute, an Intelligence Community Center for Academic Excellence at the University of Texas at El Paso. They both research and teach on intelligence and national security affairs.