Attribution and academic freedom: Gen. McChrystal at Yale

A few weeks ago at the Atlantic, U.S. Army Colonel Gian Gentile noted that retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal is teaching a course at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. McChrystal is one of a handful of senior officers and officials teaching at top schools these days, including former chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen, who’s teaching at Princeton,

Last week, McChrystal’s appointment turned into something of a flap, because his course is being offered on a “not-for-attribution” (NFA) basis. That means that students are not supposed to discuss the details of what was said in class, or take anything they’ve heard in class and tie it specifically to General McChrystal.

Most professors, I’m sure, have at one time or another wished they could lay in a selective non-attribution policy, if only because saying something stupid is an occupational hazard of talking for a living. I know I’ve said things in 25 years of teaching that I’d rather not see on a billboard in Times Square or on the front page of a foreign newspaper, including some f-bombs, some jokes that weren’t funny, and some inside-baseball stories from my days in Washington.

Gen. McChrystal

But this is a larger issue than just trying to gaffe-proof a class. As Gentile (himself an accomplished military officer and scholar who teaches at West Point) notes (based on this piece in the New York Times), McChrystal’s course has received special handling at Yale:

Yale University imposes restrictions on students who sit in McChrystal’s classes, demanding that they take notes on an “off the record” basis — i.e., not for attribution. Yale’s extraordinary act seems drastically out of place with notions of academic and intellectual freedom.

Stephen Walt of Harvard joined Gentile in saying that Yale “flunked academic freedom,” and asked how it was possible to teach a class in a university while asking students not to discuss what was said in it.

Walt added this pointed observation about what such a policy could mean:

Yale officials might argue that McChrystal is a unique asset for their teaching program, and that the only way they could convince him to teach there was to promise him that some student wouldn’t blab about the course to the Yale Daily News or the New York Times.

But that argument won’t wash: If McChrystal really believes what he’s teaching, then he should be willing to have it openly discussed. He shouldn’t be able to win arguments in the classroom by saying, “Now let me tell you about some really secret stuff I did in Afghanistan, stuff you won’t find out about in books. Trust me.”

Walt is right to be concerned: anyone who’s ever worked in international security affairs has encountered that particular dodge, where someone tries to trump a disagreement over an intellectual or policy issue by saying something like: “Well, if you knew what I know, you’d feel differently.”

Are we late for class?

I’m less worried than Walt that McChrystal would ever argue that way, and far more concerned that some of his students will. (“I took Stan McChrystal’s class at Yale, and I can’t tell you what he said, but believe me, I’m right.”) As Walt points out, by its very nature, this kind of hush-hush restriction warps the classroom experience, not least because the implied secrecy is pure catnip to students.

In fact, McChrystal’s students have weighed in, writing a pretentious rebuttal to Walt that plays right into the image of the Cool Kids who think they’re part of a special club, instead of students at a university:

General McChrystal’s class brought together a diverse group of graduate, undergraduate, and professional students to discuss under-studied issues of character and leadership. The overall message is that a leader’s character — qualities like integrity, loyalty, empathy, and humility — matter. General McChrystal illustrates these principles through robust intellectual discussion and by the examples of numerous guest speakers who shared their own experiences with us. Consistent with academic custom, non-attribution ensures that these perspectives are made available in an environment sheltered from the forms of outside scrutiny that too often militate against candor.


I can only hope that this kind of overbearing and self-congratulatory writing is not what they learned in class — especially the part about “outside scrutiny” that “too often” can “militate against candor.” (And who the hell drafted that? Some Chinese bureaucrat from the Ministry of Education?)

Before junking the whole notion of “not-for-attribution” — which is definitely not the custom for faculty in a university, no matter what McChrystal’s students think —  there is a very good reason for NFA talks in many environments, including universities: so that people working in an official capacity elsewhere can speak and relate their experiences without their views being thrown out to the world as representing the views of the entity for whom they work.

People working outside the university need NFA status if only so that they can share their knowledge while not creating accidental headaches for their agencies. It would certainly be understandable, for example, if a top general or cabinet secretary, generously taking a day out of his or her busy schedule to talk to students, did not want to risk getting into public hot water as punishment for speaking candidly to some students who were trying to understand how things actually work.

But McChrystal is no longer in the Army, and as far as I know, isn’t in any official capacity anywhere (although he does run his own consulting group now). So what’s the point, then, of non-attribution? Obviously, General McChrystal isn’t discussing anything that could be sensitive or potentially damaging to U.S. national security. But if that’s not the issue, what is?

And how does that work in a civilian university? What, exactly, is the punishment for a student who takes McChrystal’s class and then writes an op-ed in The Washington Post about something he said? (Yale, I assume, would say that the punishment is that McChrystal leaves and future students are deprived of his teaching at all.)

All of this is easy for me to say, because at the Naval War College, I teach in a non-attribution environment every day. Speaking for myself — always — I think it’s a policy of limited usefulness that only makes sense in the unique circumstances of a military school, where it serves two functions:

(1) to prevent anyone from saying that our views as War College faculty somehow represent official government policy, and

(2) to protect our students, who are serving military officers and need to be able to participate in their own education without hesitation.

On that first point, we easily deal with the issue of speaking for ourselves in the many lectures, papers, books, roundtables, and other things we do by adding the standard disclaimer you see at the bottom of this page. I’m not hesitant to defend my intellectual positions, but I’m keen to ensure those views are understood to be mine, and mine alone.

The second point is even more important: students in any classroom are not officers of instruction, and they have the right to ask questions without being quoted or ridiculed. (This is one of many reasons I don’t allow my students at Harvard Extension to record anything in my classroom: not only do I dislike it, but more to the point, the other students have the right not to have their voices and images be recorded.)

As it is, non-attribution doesn’t work all that well, simply because there are, to put it generously, creative writers out there who will seize on anything produced by almost anybody with even a remote Federal connection, including even War College student papers, as authoritative statements. Trying to keep up with these myriad weirdos all over the internet is pointless, unless we simply clamp the Cone of Silence down over everyone who has ever worked for the government.

No one should be dogged by every single thing they’ve said in class. But organizing a class around the principle that some sort of special or restricted knowledge is going to be imparted that is so remarkable it must be kept from other students, other faculty, or even the press, defeats the whole notion of a community of teachers and students.

As Walt puts it:

[McChrystal] should be willing to be held accountable for what he says to his students, and not just by those who happen to be sitting there (and whom he might eventually be grading).

If some students disagree with him, he should be willing to have them voice their disagreements to the rest of the class, but also to their roommates, friends, parents, other faculty members, and yes, even to reporters. That’s the same risk that all of us run when we teach: All of our students are free to talk about what they learn with anyone they want.

What’s General McChrystal so afraid of?

Good question.

And one other thing. Personally, I think it’s great that McChrystal (and Mullen and others) are bringing their experience to American classrooms: it’s long past time for academia and the military to get back on speaking terms in the United States.

But this kind of special policy for a university course isn’t going to help. The world is full of enough political paranoia without generals giving “not for attribution” courses at elite schools. No sooner did this story come out than the usual loopy stuff started appearing on that massive Engine of Conspiracy Generation, the Internet.

Kelly Vlahos at The American Conservative, for example, made a pretty far reach based on McChrystal’s course when she wrote about a connection between the McChrystal job and the burgeoning number of “Grand Strategy” programs like the one at Yale– in which McChrystal, it should be noted, doesn’t actually teach:

The elaborate multimillion dollar funding for these Grand Strategy Programs (this 2011 investigation by Steve Horn and Allen Ruff is a must-read), for which someone like McChrystal is considered a top mind, is not enriching military history in the traditional sense that students are learning how and why war has been waged throughout civilization. That would demand constructive thinking and perhaps a look back at what has gone wrong in our own wars.

To the contrary, it is being used to insulate and foster support for the military establishment and for the broader National Security State — not to mention the perpetuation of the Long War — by seducing and then training civilian students and future cadres for careers and aspirations that uphold these institutions.

Hmm. That’s a bit much to claim, especially since the real mainspring of an unaccountable national security state in any nation is ignorance and apathy, not education. Vlahos also neglects to mention that the Horn and Ruff “investigation” is at — and that alone should tell you that we’re headed into shaky journalistic and intellectual territory.

The Truthout piece is silly, and some of it is just plain wrong. But since I have broken bread at the same table as Yale professors John Gaddis and Charles Hill at previous “Teaching Strategy” conferences (which long predate the one Truthout mentions in 2010), maybe I’m in on the whole thing, and that’s just what you’d expect me to say.

I also moderated a panel a few years back on which Col. Gentile spoke, as you can see. The conspiracy is indeed vast.

I could tell you where this was taken, but then I’d have to kill you.

Anyway, back to reality. Vlahos also writes:

Sounds a lot like McChrystal has been given a duty-free soapbox and Yale is sacrificing academic integrity by surrendering to the dictates of a celebrity general who is not so much teaching “leadership” as he is reinforcing the cult of personality.

After reading the rebuttal to Walt from McChrystal’s students, I think I’d have to concede to Vlahos that that one’s a lot harder to argue with. Walt makes a similar point as well:

Yale’s abandoning of its principles is itself a symptom of the growing deference that Americans now grant the professional military (and to a lesser extent, top members of the broader national security establishment).

In short, whatever McChrystal is teaching at Yale, I hope it’s worth it, because there’s a high price being paid for it in academic principle that can’t be measured in tuition dollars.

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  1. Just a guess, Tom, but I bet the NFA policy is to cover the course’s “numerous guest speakers who shared their own experiences” referenced by the students’ article. Without seeing the syllabus, I’d imagine that some may be currently serving military officers or other government officials speaking on leadership and character issues. Probably how McChrystal got them to agree to participate with full candor.

    Not saying that this is a good precedent for Yale, however.

  2. Excellent post, Tom.

    A serving general officer giving, say, a one-off lecture at Yale, has every right to ask for NFA, since what s/he says could easily be mistaken for USG policy when it’s just a personal viewpoint; there it makes sense.

    It makes no sense when the GO is retired and is teaching a normal class. In that case, it smacks of special privileges and “secret squirrel” stuff, which has no place in academia.

    Like you, I fully support getting more retired military types into the classroom, which will help narrow the yawning gap between the military and academia. Yet doing it this way only furthers the gap.

    Lastly, what on earth is McChrystal saying about leadership to civilian students that requires NFA? Unless he’s talking about the really important thing he did, heading up JSOC from 2003 to 2008, which was very significant. And incredibly classified, for good reason. Not to mention something he should not be discussing in any detail outside a SCIF, which I’m pretty sure his Yale class doesn’t have.

    Hmmmmm …..

  3. Just my two cents …

    In my time as an undergraduate and graduate student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, I never took any course with former senior U.S. government officials where a non-disclosure agreement was required, and never heard of it ever being used. I am also not aware that senior figures like Kissinger or Brzezinski had NFAs when they returned to the classroom after their service.

    If, as Moneypenny says, the NFA is to cover current serving U.S. government officials who come in to guest lecture, then this flap is easily settled by clarifying that NFA only applies to them when they visit. Otherwise, it creates all of the negative impressions that this post and other articles refer to.

    Any word on whether former CJCS Mullin also operates under a NFA policy at Princeton?

    My sneaking suspicions: 1) was NFA for the retired general demanded so that he could vent about the administration but have plausible deniability and/or 2) is NFA meant to protect juicy anecdotes that might find their way into a future book but would be devalued if they appeared in print prematurely?

    • Just to pile on to Nick’s point: since I’m also a Georgetown alum, I think it’s fair to say that if Georgetown were to start handing out NFA status, half the school would have to shut down. McChrystal may know a lot about the military, but the one of things that one learns in the art of teaching is how to communicate information to students without leaning on a specially protected status.

  4. Foreign Policy’s rebuttal clearly implies that the NFA is for the guest speakers , however one must wonder about John Schindler’s concern over what McChrystal himself is saying. According to the earlier NYT article that started all this: “Like all his sessions, it was off the record — students are not supposed to talk about it outside class — because General McChrystal wanders into anecdotes about sensitive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

  5. Bottom line is, if you are not compromising TS/SCI material, or even really mainly operational/tactical matters, then what is it that he could really say anyway that should be secret?
    He’s at Yale, not at Quantico OCS or whatever you want to pick.
    Now, in reality, if he meets some academic that gets certain things, that’s a need to know deal of common sense, on both parts, of when to stfu.

  6. I think I agree with the reservation about NFA that have been expressed, but what if the choice is between offering NFA and not having a McChrystal class at all? There are few general officers of his prominence, and I wonder if the “contagion potential” is minimal here. He may not want special protection, but instead to avoid being in the NYT, or letting anecdotes out early as Nick suggests.

    The potential for students to be “duped” by a professor in any class at all, especially social science, is always present – NFA or not. Students can do fact-checking on their own if they like. And it’s never too soon to learn that “trust me, I know” is a poor argument, whatever environment one hears it in. Tom, how is McChrystal’s NFA different from not handing out PowerPoint slides after a lecture? I know you may have a six-part answer, but I thought I’d ask.

    On another note, I’m a little surprised that McChrystal is protrayed as unable to avoid wandering into classified and / or politically volatile material. Yikes.

    I took a class from Bill Odom when I was in grad school (no NFA), and had the temerity to disagree with some pro-missile defense argument he was making. When I was done, he turned to the class and said “Do you see the danger of trusting strategy to academics? Do you see?” And he went on with his plan for the seminar.

    • Andy:

      I think making a class NFA is practically equivalent to not offering it at all, and it might even be worse: it convinces the 20 students who do get in that they’re part of some secret seminar that makes them think everything in it must be true.

      If McChrystal wants NFA status because he’s saying things that are sensitive or almost-classified, then he shouldn’t say them. If he just wants to protect his own image or his consulting company (or whatever his own personal reasons), then he shouldn’t teach.

      And as for Powerpoint slides, I don’t hand them out for three reasons, not six.

      1. At the War College, I don’t want them distributed as somehow representative of any official position, because they aren’t.

      2. Also at the War College, I don’t want them to become part of a package of “gouge.” Too many of our military students are always looking for the “get me smart quick” package; as department chairman, I intercepted a few of those, including slides and former student papers (which violates our honor code). Many military officers also believe that Powerpoints are magical and that they will divine the answers to things if they stare at them long enough.

      3. In my civilian teaching, students who ask for Powerpoint slides tend either to be lazy (and won’t take notes) or hyper (and believe that the slides must be memorized). My slides are my teaching notes, and unless I design them specifically to be given to students (which is rare), I would no more hand them out than I would hand out my personal notes on my computer.

      None of them are NFA. I just don’t hand them out because it’s poor teaching (in my view) to do so.

      As for Bill Odom, let’s face it: he was an intellectual bully. Or as one prominent academic referred to him at a conference back in the 1980s: “an academic sniper in the tower” who criticized everyone else but did not put forward his own views at book length. When he finally did produce a book, large sections of it were heavily cribbed from my book — a book which he professed not to like, ironically.

      He was not a role model for scholars or teachers, and if he hadn’t been a senior military officer, I doubt he’d have been much noticed out there (especially since now his simplistic models of how the USSR made policy have been proven so wrong).

  7. LTG Odom acted with equal tact in uniform. His tenure as NSA director, the capstone of his career, was marred by bullying and tactlessness.

    His NSA reputation was bad – reviled would not be too strong a word – and he widely considered to be the worst DIRNSA in the agency’s history.