“Permission to Speak Freely?”: Academic Freedom in Professional Military Education

In a recent report the US House Armed Services Committee found that academic freedom was a major concern at professional military education (PME) institutions around the country. The committee discovered that there are a variety of procedures in place among the nation’s military colleges regarding faculty publications.  While some institutions choose to allow faculty to publish freely, others require a thorough content review to ensure publications fit a certain style and viewpoint.  On its face, it would appear that administrative interference with faculty freedom of expression is a clear violation of the common standards of academic freedom.  But the desire for academic freedom must be balanced against both the need for information security and the desire to maintain and sustain publication quality.  Often times PME faculty and administrators view these two objectives as contradictory.  But with proper guidance the desire for open academic inquiry and quality enhancement be can mutually reinforcing, ultimately resulting in a better research product.

According to the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure faculty “are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of (their) results.”  Additionally, when speaking or writing as citizens “(faculty) should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.”  The cause, of course, is noble.  Allowing faculty to engage in groundbreaking research and offer up critical, thoughtful analysis of controversial findings encourages scientific advancement.  Researchers are free to question common knowledge and develop new ideas and concepts in an environment of open intellectual contestation.  The rights conferred upon a faculty member by tenure codify their protection from retaliation for politically unpopular opinions.

Yet, in professional military education there are several complicating factors that make academic freedom in the traditional sense difficult to apply.  First and foremost is the lack of a tenure system.  PME schools have long debated the merits of adopting tenure for experienced faculty but have ultimately chosen to eschew the practice in favor of flexibility.  This is for good reason. The demand for expertise in a particular region or technical specialty fluctuates with changes in the international security environment.  A tenure process would inhibit the ability of PME institutions to shift intellectual resources to new fields more pertinent to today’s missions.  It does little good, for instance, to have a PME school staffed with an aging contingent of Kremlinologists when the military is focused on counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Second, PME faculty members are academic practitioners but also federal employees.  As such, the views and opinions expressed by professors through publication can be construed as official US government policy.  The line between official policy and personal opinion is often difficult to discern.  Lastly, as with any national security agency, there are issues with divulging classified information.  Often professors at military institutions have access to documents and data that is not intended for open dissemination.  While this information may inform one’s research there is always the risk that such material could inadvertently be released to the public.

The tension between the military and civilian education traditions manifests itself in the schizophrenic nature of PME academic freedom practices.  Some schools allow all views and opinions to be published openly, albeit with the requisite classified information review.  Others review publishable material to ensure that official US policy is stated correctly, and that the author’s opinions are clearly delineated from government official policy.   A few schools conduct informational reviews meant as an informal means of keeping up with faculty viewpoints and ensuring “no surprises” when the publication hits the press.  Finally, there are at least rumors of institutions that review the content of their faculty’s work with the intent of suppressing opinions and policy recommendations that run counter to the interests of their service or the institution.  Often it can be challenging as a faculty member to determine which type of review one’s work is undergoing.

It is unclear how much these activities inhibit faculty research.  But the mere illusion of censorship can cast a dark shadow over the aspirations of young faculty members.  Though overt suppression may be rare, there is at least the fear that professors are “self-censoring” their own research findings in order to strip away controversial, and potentially innovative, ideas.  Herein lies the real problem.  If faculty members perceive that their work will go unpublished, they have little incentive to “think outside the box” by taking on difficult issues and proposing novel solutions to national security problems.  Instead, what we are left with is a group of institutions sitting on a wealth of intellectual capital unable, or unwilling, to tap these resources to solve the myriad of national security challenges facing our military.

Ultimately it is up to the leaders of each institution to decide how to balance their academic and military responsibilities.   But PME leaders need to recognize the value that comes with allowing open, honest discussions on what are inevitably sensitive political subjects.  This type of attitude is already readily accepted inside their classrooms where non-attribution policies protect the students from recrimination from their superiors.  This same attitude needs to be applied to faculty publications as well.

At the very least, it is incumbent upon the administration of each school to develop and adhere to their own standardized publication guidelines.  These guidelines should include a clear definition of academic freedom, a precise explanation of the publication review process, and a broad commitment to the principles of open and honest intellectual inquiry.  The policy should be shared across the institution in order to encourage transparency among those involved in the review process. Clarifying the rules of the road (and adhering to these rules) will encourage faculty to be creative within the institutional framework.  This will inevitably lead to more innovative policy recommendations and hopefully more successful national security solutions. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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