Friday, May 21, 2010

I Hope He Has Tenure

Bruce Fleming, a professor at the US Naval Academy, has an op-ed in today's NYT that calls for either significant reform of the various military academies or their end.  I hope he has tenure as he is attacking some sacred cows, including the basic culture of these places as well as their sports programs.

I have never taught at a place that held inspections of the students' personal areas, but I have worked at a place where sports seemed to be far more important than the educational side of things.  At my previous position, I never was pressured to give better grades to the athletes, but it did seem as if the institution existed for football and basketball rather than for doing whatever it is universities are supposed to do.  I have never been a big fan of big college sports, so one of the nice things about the culture of Canadian universities is that sports exist but are not the priorities.  At least as far as I can tell.  We have no Bobby Knights or Mike Leachs around here. 

That the academies have gone in this direction is particularly dismaying, given that they are supposed to producing the next generations of military leadership.  Entitling those who break the rules because they bring a bit of glory is perhaps not the best message to be sending to those who will lead in combat.  As I interview officers about Afghanistan, it becomes clearer how complex those jobs are and that the focus is on how to handle risk.  Being taught early that one can get away with stuff is probably not the way to develop a good sense of risk management. 

This piece is part of a larger debate that has been on-going.  The US Air Force Academy has paradoxically become a center for evangelical conformity and abuse of women.  Tom Ricks has written a series of blog posts about whether we need the academies (for example: here and here).  So, this is nothing new, but something we should be tracking anyway.  These institutions can be quite useful and important.  West Point did, in part, help to generate the new "mavericks" in the Army including Petraeus via their Social Science department. 

I admire this professor for speaking out.  Scholarship is about challenging conventional wisdoms.  Sometimes we find that the old CW is good, but often we do not.  Indeed, one path to reforming this and other institutions is to focus on reviewing that which we take for granted and figure out how best to educate the folks (while, of course, preserving tenure).

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