Even on Space, Thinking at Air University is Unhindered by Tradition

August 29, 2019

The Air Force’s Air University in Montgomery, Alabama, proudly traces its heritage to the Air Corps Tactical School, an air-minded think tank of the 1930s full of loyal heretics eager to challenge land-centric orthodoxy. These airpower pioneers knew the airplane would change the character of war, so they embraced the motto “proficimus more irretenti,” or “progress unhindered by tradition.” In my capacity as Air University’s chief academic officer, I take this charge seriously.

I have served on the faculty at Air University in a variety of positions before taking my current post, including nearly seven years as dean of the Air War College and, more recently, more than two years as deputy commandant of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. I also maintain my own professional research and outreach agenda. I have always encouraged and supported faculty to take every opportunity to engage in the debates that arise on key issues affecting the Air Force, Department of Defense, and the nation. On several occasions, I have personally gone to the mat to protect the academic freedom of my faculty when their views triggered partisans on all sides.  And I did so with the full support of my schools’ commanders and commandants.

True to its roots, Air University pushes its students and faculty alike to think freely, but never casually. The Air Force expects no less. Our senior leaders demand that Air University be a place where ideational insurgents can challenge the party line and contest prevailing assumptions.

In an Aug. 27 guest column in the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Lyons rightly noted that the debate surrounding a space-focused military service is one of the most significant in a generation. In describing a supposed year-long “gag order” of space issues, however, Lyons mischaracterized the academic climate at Air University regarding that debate. While it is true that there was a period of uncertainty in the summer of 2018 about who could and should talk about space as policy debates raged in Washington, the chief of staff of the Air Force, Gen. David Goldfein, personally clarified that Air University faculty and students had full academic freedom to engage and discuss their ideas. The faculty and students in the Space Horizons Research Task Force and all across the university continue to have full academic freedom to share their considered views with the media and others.

Gen. Goldfein has been an outspoken advocate for rigorous debate within the profession of arms — especially here at Air University. Following a session spent with the Space Horizons Task Force and Schriever Scholars during a visit to Air University last fall, Gen. Goldfein highlighted in a subsequent note to the Air University commander the value of that intellectual exchange: “Please convey to the Schriever Scholars how much I enjoyed our session. I’m glad they felt they could speak their mind, and it was important for me to hear. I got a lot from them, and I’d like to reconnect on my next visit.”

In that same note, Gen. Goldfein tackled the issue of academic freedom head on:

We have to be consistent with the UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] and mindful of OPSEC [operations security] of course. We should be humble, and respectful that there are competing views. But we have years of students and faculty responsibly supporting or differing on law, policy, and national security. I like that we have a safe harbor for that in our profession.

The chief’s clear guidance was distributed across the university in September 2018, especially to our space-focused professionals who think, teach, and lead at the crux of a critical national debate. And in his two appearances on the War on the Rocks podcast, the chief was sure to emphasize how important the free exchange of ideas is to the Air Force, even when expressing heretical ideas.

In his first episode, he noted:

I welcome active engagement from our officer and NCO corps. This is a profession of arms. I mean, we have to be respectful. We have to be appropriately humble. We certainly have to be considerate of operational security, because our adversaries are reading and listening, probably to this podcast….Beyond those basic right book, left bookends, I want our Air Force to be out there and writing and publishing and talking and debating because these are important issues, these are national issues.

In his second, he closed the interview by saying:

At the end of the day, we are a profession of arms. The nation expects a lot out of its military, and certainly a lot out of its Air Force. If we’re not debating the big issues, and if we don’t have the freedom to be able to put forth our opinions and argue those out, then we’re nowhere near where we need to be as a profession.

The chief did not say these things in multiple settings and fora casually or accidentally. He wanted to be sure that the people of the Air Force — both in and out of uniform — heard what he had to say. And, in fact, earlier this month, while on another visit to Air University, Gen. Goldfein reinforced this message.

Academic freedom is the oxygen that sustains any university. At Air University, we foster a culture — with full support from our senior leaders — where loyal heretics can continue to challenge orthodoxy. Rather than suffering in muzzled silence, our space professionals enjoy uncommon access to speak truth — as they see it — to power. Our future as a service and as a nation demands nothing less.

 

Dr. Mark Conversino is the chief academic officer at Air University.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Melanie Cox