The Air Force Academy investigation and the current state of military education

Cadets in Colorado Springs

It’s been a rough spring and summer for education, including military education. I haven’t written about the University of Virginia scandal — and yes, when you fire and reinstate your president in weeks, it’s a scandal — because I did not attend U-Va, and therefore didn’t much care. Now that it’s clearer what happened, I think there’s an important lesson there for professional military education (PME), but more about that in a moment.

First, however, we now have a final report from the investigation of the U.S. Air Force Academy that took place earlier this year.

At this point, readers might ask: What investigation? Good question.

Here’s what happened. Professor David Mullin and a unnamed USAF Lt. Colonel, both faculty members at USAFA, claimed back in February 2011 that the Academy’s Dean, Brigadier General Dana Born, and the Vice Dean, Colonel Richard Fullerton, were overstating the faculty’s credentials. This, in practice, means saying things like everyone who teaches in a subject is an expert in that field, or at least has a graduate degree in what they teach. (Mullin’s name was redacted as well, but he has gone public.)

As is so often the case in PME, the USAFA leadership’s claim about the faculty wasn’t completely accurate: people were teaching courses in which they had no actual degree, which is a big no-no in the teaching world. That would be like taking me, a Russian-speaking political scientist, and asking me to teach the Russian 101 course. I could probably fake my way through it, but it would suck. It happens more than it should in PME, but the Academies are supposed to be a bit more careful than that.

I doubt anyone will be shocked to learn that Mullin did not have his contract renewed. (Could it be any clearer about why the military fears a tenure system?) The Air Force report says Mullin was dismissed due to consecutive “marginal” reviews, and that may or may not be true; the fact that he was clearly making trouble by raising the issue of standards certainly couldn’t have helped him.

That matter is being adjudicated in another venue, and I will not presume to comment either on Mullin’s dismissal or his reviews, since I haven’t seen any of those documents (nor do I have the right, or wish, to see them, since they are now a personal matter between Mullin and the Academy).

Anyway, the Air Force looked into the complaint, reached a conclusion, and closed the case. Somebody was found responsible for something, but the report was not released until Mullin, through his attorney, filed a Freedom of Information Act request, which is available as a PDF with the Colorado news story that broke it.

The Air Force found that General Born and Colonel Fullerton were “negligent” in overstating the qualifications of the faculty, but found mostly that they said what they did because they didn’t know any better, even if they should have. The USAFA’s self-study — and boy, those are really useful documents at any school — was apparently the source of at least some of the claims, but the report says that Born and Fullerton should have been paying more attention:

From the FOIA-cleared report.

All of this matters because the Air Force Academy is both a military school and a university, accredited to give an actual degree to young people who are counting on organizations like the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools to verify that they’re actually getting a real education, and if USAFA isn’t being level with the North Central Association, then…well, you get the picture.

This whole business got a lot uglier with a lot of unsettling charges flying around, so I decided to just ask David Mullin point-blank about reports that his dog was poisoned during this time.

Mullin’s response:

Mullin and Caleb

According to the toxicology and vet reports, my service dog, Caleb, was poisoned. [TN note: Mullin has a physical condition that requires the assistance of a working dog.] It was probably rat poison since he suffered from massive internal bleeding.  To my knowledge, the only place where Caleb could have been given the poison was at USAFA.  That is why I promptly [made] a formal complaint to the USAFA police.  I volunteered to take a lie detector test to bolster my credibility, but the investigators said that that was not necessary.

Dog-lovers can relax: Caleb nearly didn’t make it, but he’s back on all four feet. Mullin, for the record, cannot prove that the attack on his dog was related to his complaint. But as the fictional Boston private eye Spenser often said, cops hate coincidence.

Anyway, a lot of this revolves around accreditation, and the military’s desire to have it both ways: to claim world-class standards for the sake of civilian accreditation (and respect), but to stick to far lower standards in day to day operations. There are people out there who think the War Colleges should dump accreditation and degrees, and revert to training.

Oh, that silly Garry Trudeau

But if the USAFA case — and the even bigger mess this year at the Joint Forces Staff College — should tell us anything, it’s that PME cannot rely on purely internal checks for quality control. More accurately, no school should rely purely on internal evaluations, and none do: accreditation is exactly the process that is designed to prevent what happened at USAFA and JFSC from happening in the first place.

Meanwhile, Mullin is gone, as is the second complainant, and Mullin has actions pending against the Academy. Born and Fullerton remain at USAFA.

Or as my colleague Joan Johnson-Freese said in an article this week at the U.S. Naval Institute’s blog, “business as usual in PME.”

Joan reviewed the past year since she posted at USNI about PME, noting that the first reaction to her comments in some quarters was to go ugly early:

The initial response from many readers and commenters to even mild suggestions that the academic rigor and practices in PME could be improved was to dismiss them as the ramblings of one or two disgruntled or failed academics, or those who just “didn’t get” that PME “is different.” There was a time when those caustic responses might have shut down the debate, but in the era of new media, many individuals– even if under a pen name or after they leave PME — nonetheless continued to express their views. The ongoing discussion confirms that there are widespread issues common to PME in general that are not limited to one or two institutions, or a few grumpy faculty.

Joan’s point about the new media is well taken, as the University of Virginia flap also showed. (You’re reading this as a blog, aren’t you?) But that didn’t stop people, even a few of Joan’s own colleagues, from trying to paint her criticisms as just the pissing and moaning of some underachiever or failed leader — despite Joan’s stellar career and international recognition — and declaring it all just so much nonsense.

Joan actually has an elegant solution to the Master’s degree vs. training debate, which she lays out in her forthcoming book, and which she previewed yesterday in another blog at  Small Wars Journal. (She’s had a busy week, as you can tell.) Her idea is to separate the MA from the purely military requirements of Joint Professional Military Education, so that the PME schools actually can maintain the “world-class” programs the military clearly wants but cannot risk applying across the board.

Trying to kludge together these very different goals of getting officers quickly-training and back into operations, and having them be well-educated strategic thinkers, has resulted in War College academic programs where, even with no academic standards for student admission, there is virtually a 100 percent success rate.  No one fails. Programmatic goals become set by the need to get officers back in the field, with both a Master’s degree and certified as Joint Professional Military Education II “qualified,” which is necessary for promotion to higher ranks.

Any program with a 100% success rate, however, will inherently have its rigor and value questioned.

This is especially important because the military is looking for programs to axe, and educational programs are always tempting because they don’t have any obvious or immediate impact on whatever’s going on at the moment. There’s no obvious “return on investment.”

This is the tie-in to what happened at the University of Virginia. Even before the spate of articles in the wake of U-Va President Teresa Sullivan’s quick reinstatement, I had a sinking feeling that Helen Dragas, the school’s Rector (the head of their equivalent of the Trustees, who was also just reappointed) was really trying to figure out how to run a university like a business, while Sullivan was trying to run a university like…well, like a university. (Dragas apparently wanted to cut programs like Classics and German. Sure, why not: who’s going to cut real estate deals in Latin, right?)

Sullivan (left) ended up having more to smile about than Dragas

The problem here is that people who don’t understand education, and especially people from the business world — or Heaven help us, who have imbibed the noxious middle-management stew of business school — are loath to think of education as a long-term, cumulative process. That kind of thinking, for now, has been turned back in Charlottesville. Good for Mr. Jefferson’s university.

The fact of the matter is that higher education for military officers contributes to the overall defense of the United States: it makes the Nation safer, helps to kill more of the enemy, and saves American and allied lives. But it does so in ways that cannot be weighed or counted quarter by quarter.

That’s the nature of education in any field, but PME constantly has to answer questions and deal with claims no one would make in other other field of learning.  And let’s not kid ourselves: people who criticize PME don’t then say “And if it comes down to it, I’d sure rather my kid went super-cheap to the University of Phoenix online than to Cornell.” (Or as one Navy captain I once worked with said: “How come these senior leaders think that what’s good enough for my Navy wouldn’t be good enough for their children?”)


Simply weakening the program so that every kid gets a trophy, and thus making the metrics look right, isn’t the answer. Congress wanted something better, something beyond training, when it supported increased emphasis on military education, and we can actually deliver — and we’d better, as Joan points out:

If the War Colleges want Congress to recognize their value and therefore protect their budgets, the War Colleges must respect and fulfill the Professional Military Education goals set in Goldwater-Nichols.  That means a demonstration of rigor beyond a program where everybody goes and everyone graduates.


And on this July 4th, a happy 236th Independence Day to all of my fellow citizens, and special wishes for the safety of the warriors who are out there making sure we can celebrate a 237th next year as well.

The best celebrations aren’t always the biggest.

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