A former NDU instructor decides to give academic freedom a bad name

For those of you that follow the travails at our nation’s professional military education (PME) schools, you may remember a flap that ensued back in mid-2012 when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs stepped in and shut down a course at the Joint Forces Staff College (a school run by the U.S. government’s National Defense University) taught by an Army lieutenant colonel named Dooley.


John Schindler, the proprietor of the XX Committee blog, wrote about it here at the time, but let’s review.

LTC Matthew Dooley, U.S. Army, was teaching a course — or I should say, a “course”– called “Perspectives on Islam and Islamic Radicalism” at JFSC as an elective. The course included Dooley’s sage advice that it might be time to use “Hiroshima tactics” against the Islamic world. (You can see some of the slides here.) The Chairman, General Martin Dempsey, finally shut Dooley down after somebody at JFSC blew the “WTF” whistle. This not only ended the course but apparently finished off Dooley’s Army career.

But of course, this being America, Dooley threatened to sue. That plan didn’t go anywhere (that I know of, so far), but he and the Thomas More Center, a conservative legal foundation in Michigan, are now trying to get the National Defense University’s accreditation as a school revoked, ostensibly for stomping on Dooley’s right as a faculty member to academic freedom.

I can’t believe I’m going to spend even one pixel on this, but I find myself in the weird position of defending NDU — a military college that has not always been a welcoming environment for academics — while simultaneously being in the itchy position of arguing for limits on academic freedom after years of trying to get our nation’s war colleges to expand academic freedom. I still support that goal — just not the way Dooley does.

For those of you outside the military world, trust me that this whole situation, in which I find myself arguing that a faculty member was out of line, is drenched in an irony that only my civilian PME colleagues can really feel.

The More Center’s case against NDU rests on two pillars:

1. That Dooley’s right to academic freedom was violated.

2. That the Defense Department’s actions “violate the national interest.” (I am not making that up.)

Both of these positions, to use the antique French expression, are so stupid that they make my teeth hurt.

I’m not even going to dignify that second point about the national interest, because it’s arrogant and silly beyond words. The More Center complaint would have you believe that Dooley is some kind of brave, lone voice warning us about the Mohammedan onslaught, and that he was silenced by a bunch of craven weenies in Washington who are scared of Muslims.


You can almost hear him yelling: You can’t handle the truth!

Right. Maybe Dooley thinks he’s Nathan Jessup or Jack Ryan by this point, but I don’t think we should dignify even the remotest impugning of anyone’s patriotism in this. It’s all ridiculous enough without encouraging that kind of mudslinging.

Besides, the “academic freedom” charge is the one that really stinks up the whole business. I take those two words — which are the lifeblood of my career and central to my identity as a scholar — pretty damned seriously, and I don’t mind saying I find it infuriating to see them thrown around so cavalierly as part of some officer’s pissing match (or should I say “crusade,” or maybe “jihad?”) with the Joint Chiefs.

I have taught in both civilian and military schools: for the record, leaving aside the many colleges, think-tanks, foundations, and government institutions in which I’ve been invited to give lectures, I’ve actually been paid to deliver courses at Georgetown, Dartmouth, Salve Regina, the Naval War College, La Salle, and Harvard. I have never shied away, in any classroom at any of them, from saying exactly what I think when the occasion requires it.

My duty to my students is to resist sucking the oxygen out of the room with my own views — I save that for my friends, God help them — but I also don’t patronize them with ersatz feints at neutrality. (If you took my course on the Cold War, for example, you will get the sneaking suspicion that I don’t think much of murderous hyper-Stalinism as a model for alliance relations.)

But that’s an entirely separate issue about whether I think I have a right to unfettered academic freedom at any of those institutions.

Leave the military schools out of it for a moment. Instead, imagine that I had walked into a classroom at Georgetown or Harvard and offered a course on urban policy — somehow sneaking past the deans and chairs and getting the course offered despite exactly zero qualification on that subject– and then pontificated that there was nothing wrong with downtown Detroit that a thermonuclear weapon of the appropriate yield could not fix.

(I have stolen this from the plot of a great 1972 short story by Anthony Lewis called “Request for Proposal,” by the way.)

People in those neighborhoods are “different,” I tell ya, and ya gotta be firm when you talk about gun control and getting tough on crime. Ka-boom, baby.

I am fairly certain that those schools would quickly decide that my services were no longer needed. Moreover, I’m sure they would apologize to their students, their trustees, their communities, and to all other sane human beings. They would then investigate how it is that I was getting paid to teach in their halls when I was clearly a numbskull, and promise never to do it again. (Although I did have a professor at Boston University once who said the US and USSR just should nuke each other and get it over with, and they loved him, proving only that there are nincompoops everywhere.)

If that example isn’t clear enough, let me put it another way:

Academic freedom is not a license to go apeshit.

There’s a reason that you will find, if you scroll to the bottom of every page of this blog, a short except from the 1940 statement on academic freedom by the American Association of University Professors. That’s because I believe that once upon a time (say, around 1940), professors understood both sides of their job, the rights and the responsibilities.


Let me save you the down-arrow tapping, and just quote it here, at length, with emphasis on responsibility:

1. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.

2. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.

3. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances.

Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

I know what some of you are thinking, because some of my colleagues in uniform have asked me this: “Tom, that’s great — but how come professors at civilian schools don’t honor this, and act like such complete lunatics? Is what Dooley did so bad?”

Frankly, given the fact that we teach America’s military leaders, I hold PME professors to a higher standard, which is to say the standards the AAUP once expected of all of us back in 1940, before universities went completely bonkers.

But sure, there’s no way around it: many professors at civilian universities violate this norm every day. I knew professors in my time at Dartmouth — which is nowhere near the craziest of universities, and more sensible, really, than most — who did things like hand out gay porn in class to undergraduates (as an assignment, no less), agitate for and sponsor political candidates in class, ridicule and even punish students for their political views, and practice rank violations of basic norms of academic courtesy and responsibility.

Okay. So what? The abuse of academic freedom in civilian universities has nothing to do with Dooley’s case. To claim that this kind of behavior is protected by “academic freedom” is an insult to the very concept of academic freedom: it is an insistence on rights without limits or responsibilities, or even qualifications, of a kind which was never envisioned in civilian universities even for tenured faculty.

Now, there’s a danger in all this, because as best as I can tell from afar, Dooley has opened a can of worms without really understanding the implication of what he’s doing. By waving the bloody shirt of “academic freedom,” Dooley is giving the perfect opening to people who think that academic freedom isn’t a good idea anywhere, and especially not in a military school. They’ll say not only that Dooley should have been shut down, but that all those academic pinheads should be put on a shorter leash too.

This is because a lot of people in military schools are accustomed to years of obeying rather than questioning, and marching through checklists rather than tackling open-ended questions (which is what they need to learn, because that’s more what real policymaking at senior levels is like). They just can’t get their heads around the notion of academic freedom as something valuable to innovation and better decision-making, and they’d rather approach an unruly seminar room by telling everyone to just pipe down.

This, I can say from experience, produces disastrous results in a schoolhouse of any kind. (Yes, liberal universities have their own orthodoxy. It’s no less stifling.)

And that’s why Dooley’s attempt to seek shelter under those words is so corrosive (and so offensive): by conflating “academic freedom” with “I just wanna cork off in class about my pet rock, whether I’m qualified or not,” it harms the cause of real academic freedom, which is always under threat in military institutions. When something like this happens, the immediate reflex is to shut everything down, and to blame “civilianization” for producing such crackpottery.

In over 16 years at the Naval War College, I’ve pressed for the greatest degree of academic freedom as hard as I can, because a school that doesn’t allow dissent is simply not a school. The good news is that successive administrations here in Newport have understood — even when they haven’t liked it — that academic freedom is crucial to the quality of the education in any institution. There are reasons the Naval War College is as good as it is, and the Navy’s commitment to academic freedom is one of them.

The bad news is that it’s not always been the case even in Newport, and it’s still a pretty tough struggle at other professional military education institutions.

NDU, ironically, is one of them: in his memoir of his time there, Howard Wiardadescribed the naked loathing with which civilians were often treated by military officers.

Colleagues at the Air University, as well as the service academies, have told similar stories (which you can read about in more detail in Joan Johnson-Freese’s new book about the war colleges.)

To have a military officer now claiming to suffer the same oppression is a strange turn, to say the least, but as John pointed out when this first came up, it was bound to happen:

DoD has too often relied on homegrown “experts” without either a scholarly background or serious training or experience.

And as Joan notes at length in her book, PME institutions lack rational quality control when it comes to faculty. Military and civilian faculty, working together, are essential to the success of senior military education, but that requires qualified civilians and officers.

I’ll be the first to admit that hiring standards for civilians are wildly uneven: that’s a whole problem in itself, and again, buy Joan’s book if you want the complete story there.

When it comes to officers, however, it gets worse: PME schools empower military officers, who already are raised from the moment they’re commissioned to think they can do anything, to believe that they can stand in front of classrooms and offer courses in subjects about which they know next to nothing — or worse, in which the little they know is wrong.

This came, as Schindler noted in a piece in the The National Interest, during a perfect storm, when the DoD was hurting for expertise on Islam, and a group of self-declared “experts” rushed in to fill the void.

The DoD schools then cut these officers and their “experts” lose in class, and let them do as they please — right up until someone wondered why nuking Islam was on the syllabus. Academic freedom doesn’t mean “unmolested by standards of any kind,” and clearly, no one was minding the store while Dooley was doing his, ah, “course.”

So in this one respect, Dooley has a defense, although I’m not sure it’s one he wants to use. He could argue, I guess, that NDU should never have assigned him as a faculty member teaching something like Islam (in which, as far as I can tell, he has no specialized background) in the first place, but that once they did, they had to honor his rights as “faculty” all the way, and they can’t just yank his chain now because he happens to be in the military.

That argument fails in two areas, however.

First, Dooley’s course would have flunked the “WTF?! Test” no matter where he taught it.This isn’t about NDU, it’s about quality control, and actually, a better case could me made for de-accrediting NDU if they didn’t shut down his little circus and his parade of supposed”experts” on Islam.

Second, Dooley cannot have it both ways. In the Thomas More Center’s complaint, Dooley’s military record is trotted out as some kind of defense against NDU canning his course. But if this is about academic freedom, Dooley’s military record is irrelevant. He can’t have the full panoply of academic rights at one moment, and then claim special exception from criticism as an honored warrior in the next.

It doesn’t work that way, fella. If you want to get out there in front of a classroom and put your ideas on the table, then get a thicker skin. And if you screw up and get called out, you can’t engage in a special pleading based on military service. (If I give a lousy course and it fails to pass a basic quality control test of the institution, what do I fall back on? That I was really smart in grad school?)

Again, the best that Dooley can argue is that NDU should have realized that he didn’t know what he was doing, and that consequently they shouldn’t have put him in a no-win situation by letting him teach a course without proper supervision. This happens all the time in PME, and it’s an argument for more, rather than less, civilian academic oversight of the curriculm.

The fact of the matter is that the PME system and its assumption that anyone in uniform can teach anything has been creating people like Dooley for years. The only surprise is that it took this long to come around and bite everyone in the ass.

In the end, Dooley’s attempt to punish NDU is not only ridiculous on its face, but it’s a double-barreled mistake: it gives a black eye to the notion of academic freedom while providing a ready-made excuse to the handful of military martinets, small but influential, who want to clamp down on legitimate debate in our nation’s war colleges, especially when it involves those pesky civilians.

For the record, I don’t know LTC Dooley, but I hope he’s managed to do as much damage to the enemy as he’s trying to do to professional military education in the United States. If he wins whatever it is he wants from NDU, it will be he, not the National Defense University, politicizing the meaning of “academic freedom.”

NDU has made a lot of bad calls over the years, and it needs improvement — but on this one, the JCS wasn’t wrong.

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