The Military and Academic Ethics: Mixed Messages
In August 2014 Montana Senator John Walsh’s dropped out of the general election race consequent to exposure and admission that part of his academic work at the Army War College had been plagiarized. His post-exposure excuse of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) seemed disingenuous and even insulting to those actually suffering from PTSD. Then in October the Army War College revoked his graduate degree.
While Walsh’s office issued a statement saying that the Senator disagrees with the College’s findings – and the college seemed to go out of its way to make Walsh’s case seem a gross aberration - he accepted the decision. Always loyal, he did not fault the institutional military system that may have contributed to his demise.
The Army War College is part of the Professional Military Education (PME) structure. Degree-granting PME schools largely move officers through an accelerated 10-month, executive education level course where the students are the military equivalent of “too big to fail.” Most come from operational jobs; some return to operational jobs, others to staff jobs; sent to PME because Congress mandated it in the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. PME leadership is focused on successfully moving through the highly trained pilots, infantry officers, ship drivers, and staff officers who attend. That can mean squinting at academic standards potentially damaging to officers’ careers, such as the inability to write graduate-level research paper.
Many if not most officers who attend have not written an academic paper in 10 years, often more. Further, many did their earlier academic work in technical fields where paper writing was not required. Senator Walsh wrote a 14 page paper, which is not a thesis or dissertation by any stretch of the imagination. Guidelines for similar papers today at the Army War College call for a minimum of 5,000 words, or often about 20-36 pages, still less than a “normal” civilian thesis or dissertation. But many military students have little preparation for even these minimal writing expectations of the PME program, which at all the War Colleges includes a Master’s degree.
Ideally, there would be time in the academic schedule for qualified faculty to instruct students on the basics of paper writing and for practicing their writing skills. Writing is a skill that takes practice, just like any other skill. But taking the time to teach writing and allowing students to hone their skills isn’t something that can be done within an accelerated schedule. Further, PME faculty members Drs. Nickolas Murray and Gregory Hospodor have also pointed out that a significant number of PME faculty are ill-prepared to assist students in their writing requirements, or “catch” plagiarism when it occurs, because they are active duty or retired military with little writing experience themselves. (http://ricks.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2014/07/28/teaching_at_an_army_school_were_not_surprised_by_sen_walshs_plagiarism)
PME students have always been given guidance as to what constitutes plagiarism. The larger question is whether, prior to the Walsh case, they thought they really had to care. What were the signals given regarding tolerance for plagiarism?
Incoming students are briefed on the academic honor code and what constitutes plagiarism, and faculty talk about it in classes. But the honor code has been passively implemented in many cases, and administrators have sometimes dropped violations of what gets deemed merely “sloppy scholarship” from what is intended to be a standardized Academic Integrity Review process. Further, there has often been little or no communication regarding the existence or outcome of an academic integrity review. That has led many PME faculty, and students, to believe that infractions simply disappear into the ether world with an admonishment and perhaps a “do over.”
Retired Professor Dan Hughes wrote about faculty frustrations regarding poor writing skills among students at the Air War College, and administrative demands to just get the students through, in a chapter of Military Culture & Education (2010). According to Hughes, unless faculty were willing to basically re-write papers for the students, poor writing was often overlooked.
Even with a lot of heavy editing by PME faculty, many poor papers slip through.
While it may seem ludicrous to assume that military officers “don’t get” the parameters of plagiarism, in the military world “team work” and “get it done” are guiding principles, and that includes sharing and using available resources. Without specific and repeated instruction otherwise, that attitude can get carried over to academic paper writing with no nefarious intent, especially with no ill consequences of doing otherwise evident.
Clearly now, however, there is considerable attention being paid to incidents of plagiarism. That means increased pressure on students unaccustomed to writing academic papers to produce graduate level work. Consequently, it also demands more attention be paid to research and writing skills in PME curriculum so that students can successful complete the work required of them. It can be done.
Harvard Extension School teaches courses designated as “W” (writing courses) where faculty teach basic writing skills along with the substance of the course, and students are required to produce multiple writing assignments, including two that are edited as ungraded drafts. These are labor-intensive courses but, having taught these courses for 3 years, the students’ writing skills improve significantly, and several have published course-required assignments. While a Writing Center or remedial sessions can supplement classroom instruction on writing at PME institutions, they cannot replace classroom instruction and practice as a quick fix, if leadership seriously wants students to be able to write at a graduate level.
Most students take PME very seriously. But senior leadership has been known to advise students that War College is time to reconnect with family, and that “it’s only a lot of reading if you do it.” Intended or not, statements like this send a signal about how the military prioritizes academics; it appears not to.
Yet the military stresses ethics in its academic and leadership programs.
This all becomes especially confusing when the case of Elizabeth O’Bagy is juxtaposed to that of Senator Walsh.
In 2013 Elizabeth O’Bagy, a twenty-six year old scholar at the Institute for the Study of War, was fired. Ms O’Bagy had given media interviews and written opinion pieces on Syria without disclosing that she had direct ties to Syrian rebel forces. Her analysis was cited by Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator John McCain in support of air strikes on Syria. She testified before Congress and was frequently called upon as a television commentator.
She was not fired because of conflict of interest issues though, but because she had falsely claimed to complete a doctorate at Georgetown University. She had fabricated her credentials, and failed to disclose major biases that influenced public policy, both significant ethical lapses.
Nevertheless, two weeks after she was fired, Ms O’Bagy was hired by Senator John McCain – a former Naval officer and presidential candidate -- to work on his staff. Senator McCain said he looked forward to working with her. Apparently, cheaters can prosper.
The compass being given military officers for when ethics matters, especially regarding academic practices, seem ambiguous at best.
The views presented here represent those of the author alone, and not the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.