General Scales, Civilian Academics, and Military Education

The Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA

Maj. Gen. Robert Scales (USA, ret), the former commandant of the U.S. Army War College, had some testy words for me last Friday morning on Tom Ricks’s widely read blog. Scales was, to use his words, kind of “steamed” about the way I reported his recent comments on military education.

Robert Scales (Maj. Gen., USA; PhD., Duke)

First, some background.

On April 18th, the Foreign Policy Research Institute hosted a panel in Washington at the fabulously-located Capital Hill headquarters of the Reserve Officers Association. The subject was an article by Professor Joan Johnson-Freese, my colleague and close friend at the Naval War College.  I blogged about the panel here — and then again as a follow-up here — and so I won’t recap the whole afternoon again.

But apparently, General Scales and I disagree about what he said, and what he meant. I am surprised that the general’s recollection of the afternoon differs so widely from mine, because I was at the conference, directed a question to him, spoke with him briefly afterward, and then noted in my blog that his comments were actually preserved on audio and are available verbatim to the public.

The issue of what was said can be cleared up quickly and easily, and I’ll get to that in a moment. But Gen. Scales’s comments are worth an extended response, because they raise issues beyond military education. His views on the role of civilians in professional military education (PME) speak not just to the festering problems in military education, but to a growing problem overall in American civil-military relations: specifically, the increasingly open disdain in which civilians, and particularly civilian academics, are held by too many senior U.S. military officers.

Who Should Run the Colleges?

General Scales, for some reason, keeps objecting to a solution no one is suggesting:

I wrote:

Gen. Scales objected [at the conference] that the heads of the PME schools should all be top officers, but that wasn’t Johnson-Freese’s point; she was talking about the “herd,” as she put it, of deans, assistant deans, associate deans, associate assistant deans, and on and on, not the actual presidents or commandants. 

Scales replied:

I agree that the senior administrative slots at all colleges should be trimmed. But the most senior leadership should be in uniform or recently retired (president, dean, etc.). The challenge is to find senior officers who are qualified to lead and administer a senior military college.  

No one has suggested otherwise, and I’m not sure why General Scales raised this in his discussion of my piece, but we’re in heated agreement: the head of every PME institution should be a senior admiral or general.

What’s interesting is the fact that Scales, despite repeated agreement on this from Johnson-Freese during the conference, kept hammering on this point. I can only assume that this is because the idea of a civilian head of a PME school is so utterly unacceptable to Scales that he wants to make sure he gets that point across loud and clear. Message received, but it’s an answer to a question no one was asking.

The other possibility is that Scales was talking about all of the senior leadership positions in war colleges. No one has seriously argued — at least, I haven’t — that the President of the Naval War College shouldn’t be an admiral, or that the Commandant of the Army War College shouldn’t be a general. But does every single dean and administrator have to be a military professional or recently retired officer?

If that was Gen. Scales’s point, then I disagree completely. At some point, the war colleges are colleges, and have to be administered, at least in part, by people who have had successful careers in educational administration, teaching, and scholarship.

Who Should Examine the War Colleges?

As for oversight of the PME system, I wrote:

Perhaps most important, Johnson-Freese called for independent analysis of the PME system, perhaps by a panel appointed by Congress (but certainly not a paid contractor aiming to please the DoD, since we’ve tried that already and it was an expensive failure). No more “self-studies.” As Joan put it: Who has an incentive to find problems with their own organization in a self-study?

I am uneasy about Scales’s reply:

I’ve done this for Congress several times to the extent that I was put in the QDR [Quadrennial Defense Review] to advocate for PME reform. Congress has held hearings about PME and I participated in all of them directly or indirectly. But since it doesn’t involve programs or end strength Congress isn’t interested. Worse, there is no real advocate for PME in congress now. 

Either Gen. Scales is avoiding the point, or he’s just not paying attention to what Joan said and wrote, or to what I posted later. (I have to point out here, as listeners of the audio will hear, that although the roundtable in Washington was about Johnson-Freese’s Orbis article, Gen. Scales launched into his comments with no discussion of the article — at all.)

Anyway, to answer a call for an independent commission with an answer that he, as the former commandant of the Army War College, participated in reviews of PME as part of the QDR doesn’t say very much, because by definition the former head of a PME school is not an independent or disinterested participant in an investigation of the longstanding practices at PME schools.

NWC Newport (and no, I don't have a water view, but that's okay, it's a nice place)

General Scales also believes there should be an Assistant Secretary of Defense for learning and education. Personally, I think that would proliferate the inevitable gaggle of bureaucrats, consultants, and Deputy Assistant Secretaries, but that’s a subject for another time.

Tenure and Teaching

The next two issues General Scales raised were intertwined and far more controversial: whether PME professors should have tenure, and whether student evaluations carry too much power in decisions about faculty retention. This is where General Scales and I disagree most strongly about what actually was said that afternoon in Washington.

I wrote:

Some of [Scales’s] comments, of course, reflected attitudes civilian faculty always encounter: his loathing of the word “tenure,” for example (which Joan pointed out that military officers, do, in fact, have)…

Scales responds:

Tenure is not good for a military college. In fact one of the few really effective personnel instruments for PME is Title 10 selection and hiring. This system gives the college leadership full authority to hire and fire. (I don’t know what Joan means when she alleges that military officers have tenure. They do not).

More about tenure in a moment (although Scales never explained by what measure tenure is “not good” for a military school).  The thing is, Johnson-Freese did answer the question about what she meant by “military officers having tenure.” In fact, she answered it repeatedly during the discussion in Washington.

Johnson-Freese noted that contract faculty are timid and do what they need to do to survive from contract to contract, and that at some point (she suggested following the academic model of 7 years) they should finally be trusted. She then drew the parallel to the military:

“In the military you come in, you prove yourself, but after a certain point…you can anticipate a 20-year career. [Tenure] is the civilian version of this.”

Pretty clear to me what she meant, and here’s how I depicted what happened next, regarding student evaluations:

I was particularly surprised, as I think many people were, to hear Scales downplay the distorting role of student evaluations in the PME system, which has been noted by many PME faculty, including in a blistering memoir by former National War College professor Howard Wiarda.

A Marine student at the U.S. Air Force Air War College

Scales, incredibly, claimed that student evaluations never mattered at all in faculty retention decisions at the Army War College while he was there — and boy, that’ll be a surprise to the faculty in Carlisle — and that he doesn’t even remember if the War College even bothered to do them while he was there. He added that in any case he didn’t remember ever seeing any of them (a remarkable thing to say in itself, since they are required by both the Pentagon and academic accreditors).

This is where General Scales declared himself to be “really steamed:”

Truth be told I do not remember anyone giving me a faculty recommendation based on student popularity. I asked [U.S. Army War College Professor] Craig Nation who was on my faculty and he couldn’t remember either but he did infer [sic] that the college is using these student evaluations now.

I did say faculty quality is subjective and I stand by that statement. Selecting future leaders in the Army is subjective as well. And as a brigade commander I wouldn’t do an OER unless I watched the officer in action. Same for faculty hiring. That’s why I visited every seminar, every semester every year. And I participated in discussions. Seems to me that good faculty liked it and poor faculty disliked it. It’s about leadership not student forms. 

There’s a lot to unpack here, so one thing at a time.

I am including the actual moment where General Scales — unfairly, in my view — put Professor Craig Nation, who was in the audience in Washington, on the spot. (Disclaimer: I don’t know Craig Nation personally, but I’m familiar with, and an admirer of, his scholarly work.)

Nation didn’t “infer” anything. His answer was a lot clearer than that.

Click for Audio: "Did we look to student happiness? Help me out."

Click here or on image for audio.

Here’s my transcription of this audio clip:

 JOHNSON-FREESE: If you can do it in the military, you can do it in the civilian academic world as well. It simply is not fair, it is not reasonable, to have someone who you expect to challenge the students, to challenge policies, but say: “And I’m going to be looking at your contract every three years.” What you will get is a coward faculty.

Scales responded and agreed with Johnson-Freese about administrative bloat at the colleges. Then, he added:

SCALES: The final thing I’ll say is that one of the things the Commandant has to do is understand the students.  You know, I had a rule that said I would visit every seminar every semester as a commandant and draw my own opinions of students and faculty.  And the final thing is, I don’t know where, you know this thing about…help me out here…did we look to student happiness as a measure of faculty tenure? I don’t remember that being a “big deal,” Craig. I mean, I never …now, happiness on the golf course is a different issue, but I don’t remember hating a faculty member affecting my judgment of whether he should continue in his tenure. Help me out.

PROF. CRAIG NATION:  Just as a response to that, I think that Joan’s point is quite well-taken. There needs to be a standard that doesn’t risk to change when you move from one commandant to another. I have had many colleagues who have come to me, since I’m sort of a senior faculty member, with grievances. And their grievances, you know… “my contract is being renewed, and I’m being told by my supervisor ‘you have problems with students, you said something [they] didn’t like, somebody saw you with an OBAMA FOR PRESIDENT button on‘ “– this is a real example — and this is a problem.  So there’s a problem there. I think it…the point is, it’s something that needs to be thought about.

SCALES: But that’s a problem of leadership.

JOHNSON-FREESE: It’s a prevalent problem.

So now it’s my turn to be “slightly steamed.”

First, I don’t think that General Scales’s depiction of that exchange on Ricks’s blog was accurate, or even came close to capturing the essence of the discussion, which is why I’ve appended the audio above.

Second, “it’s a leadership issue” is not an answer, it’s the generic military response to any objections about any specific problem. “Oh, that’s a leadership problem” means: “This was just some blip of a mistake, and I would have done it better than whoever you’re bitching about.”

Likewise Scales’s quip about how “good faculty liked and poor faculty disliked” his visits; my own quarter-century of successful teaching experience tells me that the opposite is probably true, since poor faculty can always manage to muster a good show for at least 90 minutes, while good faculty know that teaching is cumulative and holistic, and that a single class visit here and there by someone who isn’t teaching the material says nothing about the overall quality of instruction.

Civilians run into this all the time in PME. When Johnson-Freese first wrote an op-ed on PME issues a while back, one of her colleagues at the Naval War College basically flamed her in a widely-distributed email, asking what she had done to change things as a department chair.

The hitch, of course, was that he did not actually ask her, but simply posed the question to his email list with the clear implication that her criticisms and proposed solutions were just the gripes of a failed leader.

Joan’s response was, to say the least, thorough, and the whole thing can be found at the U.S. Naval Institute blog here. I, too, as a former department chair, have been on the receiving end of that kind of barb, usually from people who have no idea what department chairs do all day.

But in any case, this “leadership” hand-wave actually confirms the very problem General Scales is trying to downplay: if contracts and student complaints are a “leadership issue,” then clearly, Scales is admitting that the faculty have to understand that their contracts depend on who’s in the leadership at any given moment.

The bottom line here is that anyone who doesn’t believe that faculty contracts are manipulated as intimidation is either being disingenuous or has never worked in a PME contract system.

Many years ago, for example, the then-NWC President and a group of administrators, none of whom had any educational experience, came up with a scheme to tear apart the academic program. When told that the department chairs, including me and Joan, would object, his answer — as reported to us by several different sources — was, and I quote:

“Well, shoot one, and the rest will fall in line.”

Thank you for your input.

Clearly, we were supposed to believe our jobs were in danger and buckle accordingly. We didn’t, but others might have; we believed it was worth the personal risk to defend the integrity of the academic program.

The point is that resolving those issues simply should not be so conflictual, but in a contract system, they always will be, unless the civilians simply fold and do as they’re told, even if it’s against their professional judgment or personal ethics.

Returning to tenure, Scales clearly has a serious hostility toward the concept, but he’s hardly atypical. There is such a clear loathing among many military officers toward any notion that civilian faculty should be as secure in their positions as military leaders are in theirs that many of them blanch at the very word. It is an immediate conversation-stopper in any discussion of faculty issues in Newport and even more so at other PME institutions. (Except the Naval Postgraduate School, which — having long-ago modeled itself on successful universities, has a tenure system. So does the U.S. Naval Academy.)

We're not all like this. But maybe we should be.

How faculty are supposed to be full participants in the life of their institution while fearing that one wrong word could end their contracts is beyond me. That’s why universities grant tenure: to protect the expression of ideas and criticisms without fear of reprisal.

And would most officers refuse to send their children to elite colleges just because the faculty in them have that dreaded “tenure?” We spend a lot of time asking about the “best practices” of other schools, but when tenure is raised, it’s the one “best practice” that military leaders are more than happy to ignore.

And we're not all like this, either.

In fairness, Gen. Scales was not confronted with the problem of retaining a tenured and stable resident faculty at Carlisle, because civilian faculty were not a PME priority then or now. And although Scales notes that he was a “university president” after leaving the Army, he was actually the CEO of a for-profit online school, which by its nature does not have the same kinds of faculty requirements found in trying to build a team of top scholars in a bricks-and-mortar institution.

I will not go into Scales’s comments about faculty records being “subjective” except to agree with Johnson-Freese in her strong objection to that characterization during the conference. As she noted, academic resumes are as clear and as revealing as military fitness reports — if one knows how to read them.

Why Do War Colleges Exist at All?

Finally, and most important, General Scales totally misunderstood what many of us at the FPRI conference were saying about the war colleges. He writes:

My big objection to Joan’s remarks was her inference that war colleges should focus on making the civilian faculty happy by putting them in charge by offering tenure, academic freedom and the keys to hiring and firing.

No, this is the ARMY [sic]War College and its mission is to prepare Army officers to perform at the strategic level of war. Of course there are many similarities to the Wilson and Kennedy Schools, but at the end of the day the mission of the college is to serve the services. I agree with Joan that reforms are needed but I disagree that the problem rests overwhelmingly with a failure to listen to civilian faculty.

I respect General Scales as a genuine American war hero, a scholar, and a thinker. But this is a gross mischaracterization, followed by an unseemly cheap shot.

No one at the conference insisted on “putting civilians in charge,” but it says something in itself that Gen. Scales sees the normal academic functions of tenure and academic freedom as somehow overly-empowering faculty to the point where they would be “in charge.”

Johnson-Freese’s whole point is not that the war colleges should be built on faculty happiness, but that they are already overly consumed by seeking student happiness — which seems to count as “serving the services” — at almost any cost to education and to open and productive civil-military interaction.

And let’s think about what happens when civilians aren’t in charge, and no one with academic experience is overseeing the creation of curriculum and the quality of teaching. The recent debacle at the Joint Forces Staff College, for example, where a Lieutenant Colonel had, for some time, been teaching a course on making “total war” on Islam, should be all the evidence we need of what can go wrong when military officers are left to manage courses by other military officers: so long as the students like it, the course survives, until someone finally blows the whistle.

Subtlety in education at JFSC.

And here’s the really unsettling question: although the the Pentagon has canceled the course, why did the students like it in the first place? How could military education go so wrong? (More about that in a later post, which I’m working on with several colleagues.)

This makes it all the more disturbing that Scales said in Washington that he thinks the study of civil-military relations is just a waste of time.

This cavalier dismissal of civil-military relations as a proper subject of study prompted Ricks, to wide laughter in the room, to interject and”throw the BS flag.” Ricks rightly reminded Scales that the disengagement of the American public from military affairs is one of the most dangerous trends of the modern era in U.S. national security affairs.

And as I said to General Scales at the time, civil-military relations isn’t a detached field of study; rather, it’s what the war colleges do every day. Disempowering faculty at the war colleges and making them so utterly dependent on student satisfaction sends a message to the students that faculty (to take a quote from Joan’s forthcoming book) are little more than intellectual valets, whose only real job is to make the unpleasant task of going to school at taxpayer expense as fun and painless as possible for the students.

And then Scales added the aforementioned cheap shot:

Truth is that during my tenure faculty excellence was shared in equal measure between retired military, civilians and retired military. Oh, by the way I’ve never seen a civilian faculty CV fail to list in bold letters that the professor had taught, lectured or attended a war college.

I’ll take issue with that “shared excellence” observation, which I believe can be empirically disproved, at another time.  But the “oh, by the way” crack was unworthy of a man of the General’s stature.

What, exactly, is the point of a parting zinger like that? Is the implication that if we have any criticisms of how our institutions are run, we should quit our jobs and erase our PME association from our CV? Or conversely, that if we stay on, we have an implied requirement, basically, to shut up?

The Air War College, Alabama

This is the “love or leave it” challenge  that so many of the civilian faculty in PME are contemptuously presented with any time we have serious concerns about our colleges and the education of our students.

The fact is that of course we list our affiliation with our Colleges boldly: I know I speak for many of my friends in PME when I say that we’re proud to teach in our schools, and to do our part as members of the Federal government to serve our country and the national defense.

But military officers often seem to forget that for civilians, teaching is not a second career, or a comfortable addition to a military pension after years of doing something else. It is our vocation, and we take our duties and obligations to our students as seriously as military officers took their various duties in their own careers. If we see something wrong, and we don’t speak up, we fail the institution, the students, and ourselves.

I will close, for now, by saying that my personal view is that it’s hard to square the General’s comment that the problem in PME does not lie in dismissals of the concerns of civilian faculty with the fact that we spent two hours in Washington watching him essentially dismiss the concerns of civilian faculty.

Like or not — and many senior officers do not — civilian academics and their expertise are crucial to PME institutions, and it would be a welcome change to see Bob Scales and other top military figures acknowledge that fact without the obvious disdain that is the unfortunate undertone to so many of their comments and observations.


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  1. A very perceptive column, one that captures the center of the civil-military problem today. It has become popular to blame civilians for the decline in civil-military engagement, but engagement is a two-way street. Civilians will withdraw when the military tells them they cannot understand military issues and, in any event, they have not earned the right to have an opinion unless they have served. When any critique is met with the charge, “you don’t support the military,” it leaves a very narrow window for engagement.

    I’ve written a recent book on this topic, “A More Perfect Military: How the Constitution Can Make Our Military Stronger” (Oxford University Press). It offers some new explanations for the widening civil-military divide (it wasn’t just the end of the draft) and a few suggestions for repairing the breach:

    A former Air Force officer and current law professor

  2. Prof. Mazur: Thanks for the comments. I’ve ordered the book — and encourage readers to do the same.