In June 1972, when Vice Admiral Stansfield Turner became the 36th President of the Naval War College, he was in many ways the perfect fit for such an assignment. He was certainly "naval" enough, having spent many years at sea in varying billets, including commanding a Sixth Fleet carrier task group, and he understood "war," having commanded a guided-missile cruiser in the Vietnam War. But it was in the "college" part that he was unusually qualified. Turner had spent two years at Amherst College before transferring to the U.S. Naval Academy. After a year at sea, he entered Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and earned a master's degree in philosophy, politics, and economics, and later attended Harvard Business School.
Admiral Turner came to his new assignment believing that the College was not living up to its full potential. Given full freedom by thenCNO Admiral Elmo Zumwalt to devise a new curriculum, Turner assembled an impressive array of thinkers (including then-Commander James A. Barber, later to become Publisher/CEO of the U.S. Naval Institute) and picked their brains for ways to make the College more relevant to the needs of naval officers.
In his excellent history of the Naval War College, John Hattendorf writes that Turner believed that "if students, curricula, and faculty met uncompromising standards of excellence" NWC would come to be recognized "by virtue of its academic excellence and the quality of its products, rather than by a bureaucratic directive."
Much influenced by his days at Oxford, Turner wanted to "look beyond the shrinking boundaries of right and wrong answers" and to "raise questions in the minds of our students which could never be resolved by the neat formulae for . . . a submarine search pattern."
As the first academic year under Admiral Turner began, the students (and faculty) learned that the days of the Naval War College being perceived as a rest stop between arduous assignments were over. Rigor was the new watchword. Students would now be graded. They would begin reading whole books instead of excerpts. They would write essays and be critiqued. And they would use historical case studies, such as Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War, as the basis for determining the right questions before beginning to think about answers. Professor Hattendorf points out that Turner's well-known predecessors, Stephen B. Luce and Alfred Thayer Mahan, would have approved and "wholeheartedly subscribed to Turner's view that... a proper understanding of history was indispensable to understanding contemporary and future problems."
Needless to say, not everyone appreciated these changes, and to this day, one can find dissenters. But for many, Turner's message resonated when he declared that "scholarship for scholarship's sake is of no importance to us" and told the students that "you must keep your sights on decision making or problem solving as your objective." To this day, his clarion call for "dispassionate analysis" echoes in the halls of the College.
The Naval War College has not remained dormant since the Turner days. case studies have changed, courses have been modified, and jointness is more evident. But rigor remains, and the College's reputation is everything Turner envisioned and more. Today, students earn master's degrees, and courses are offered worldwide through distance and Web-based variations. While his later tenure as CIA director received mixed reviews, the Turner touch is still very much in evidence, at the Naval War College and few will argue that the institution is not better off because of it.