The Navy isn’t anti-intellectual—it just acts that way.
Those were not the exact words of a high-level task force charged with studying Navy-Marine Corps education, but they capture the main conclusion. The task force, commissioned by Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modley, spent nearly a year assessing how the Department of the Navy educates officers and what needs to be fixed. The panel of former admirals, generals, and ambassadors was surprisingly candid about what was needed to ensure coming generations of naval officers will be sufficiently educated to meet the challenges of great power competition.
The good news is that Navy leaders recognize the organizational shortcomings and the need for a well-educated workforce. The task force’s prescription, however, might not cure what ails the Navy. The 422-page Education for Seapower report shows that the Department of the Navy is serious about wanting to improve education. But there are three areas that merit close attention. First, the Navy, in implementing the report’s recommendations has already pivoted away from its first suggestion. Second, education initiatives cannot be allowed to evolve into “must-be-invented-here” solutions. Third, more innovation must be devoted to educating enlisted sailors and Marines.
Interestingly, the study did not devote much attention to what academic subjects officers should study, beyond making it clear the Navy is not interested in art history majors and is no longer keen on officers pursuing MBA degrees. That suggests a recognition that a healthy balance of STEM and classical subjects is important to meet the technical and strategic challenges military leaders will face. But beyond that, the report only hints that specific educational content will be addressed at a later date.
The study makes clear that for too long the perception within the Navy and Marine Corps has persisted that taking time “off” from operational postings to attend graduate school would not help—and could hamper—an officer's career advancement. One of the report’s most specific recommendations is that promotion boards understand that spending a year at the Naval War College, the Naval Postgraduate School, Marine Corps University, or a civilian graduate school is not time wasted and that such an experience should actually enhance a candidate’s potential for promotion. Otherwise, few hard-charging officers will pursue advanced degrees—something the Navy can ill afford.
To rectify this, the report’s first recommendation was to appoint a three-star admiral or general “Naval University President” to be in charge of all things education, with a (presumably civilian) Chief Learning Officer reporting to the person in uniform. Instead, the Secretary of the Navy has appointed a civilian—albeit a well-qualified former enlisted Marine—to report to the Secretary. John Kroger, the new CLO, has a first-rate academic and professional resume. But having a senior officer in charge of this initiative would send an important message to the organization: Continuing education is a readiness imperative. It will be interesting to see if someone without stars on his or her collar can have the same impact.
Bureaucracies tend to value not just what is measured, but what is funded. The report strongly implies that the Department of the Navy should build its own unique educational infrastructure. That understandably means a staff and a bigger budget. But the big question is whether the few other specific recommendations included in the report—such as “Naval University-supplied MOOCS [massive open online courses], virtual learning programs, and stackable certificates”—will be created and managed in-house—like the Naval Academy and the department’s three existing graduate schools—or sourced from and developed with outside providers.
Answering this question is critically important. The new Naval University will need to be lean, flexible, and responsive to “customer” needs and fast-changing technologies—areas with which the Navy has always struggled.
For nearly two years, John Katzman (a friend, long-time collaborator, and a successful education entrepreneur) and I worked to help the Navy use technology and best-practice instructional design to improve sailors’ educational opportunities. The lessons we learned could shed light on the path the new CLO takes. They involve people, technology, and bureaucracy.
There is a single line in the E4S report that underscores the people problem: “The Naval War College’s mission is . . . threatened by an inability to recruit and retain the most talented faculty due to an inability to compensate faculty at market rates.” Complicating the compensation issue is “ambiguity regarding copyright protections for faculty” who teach there.
That is not to say the people who teach at Naval University schools are not first rate. When Katzman and I met with Naval War College leaders, they told us that the retention/compensation problem was top-of-mind. Removing the cap on what professors are allowed to earn—either through higher, more competitive salaries or, more likely, through outside consulting fees—could be fixed through legislation. But given the current congressional gridlock, Mr. Kroger ought not to expect bipartisan largesse anytime soon. Rather than attempt to compete with civilian institutions—which not only can pay more and impose fewer restrictions on their faculties’ outside consulting fees—the Navy should leverage teaching talent through joint appointments and visiting professorships.
News stories have heralded the Navy's recent replacement of 1970s-era computers on Aegis cruisers and destroyers with much smaller, more powerful, modern computers. That such updating merited headlines underscored not just how antiquated much of the Navy’s technology is, but how slow the military can be in adopting cutting-edge tools.
In the past ten years, technology has revolutionized the education world. In 2016, more than 30 percent of all masters’ degrees were awarded by online-only programs. Schools from Yale to University of California–Berkeley now are delivering top-flight graduate programs using online technology to improve learning outcomes. The Navy can do the same.
To be sure, the Navy has educational technology constraints that few civilian campuses can imagine: secure facilities, classified content, limited bandwidth at sea, and unpredictable student schedules. But there is a tendency for the Navy to reinvent the wheel, even when easily adaptable, excellent solutions already exist. Many technology companies are eager to work with the military—and customize their products to the services’ special needs. But for companies that do not normally do business with the Pentagon, its byzantine procurement process can be off putting.
Military bureaucracy is legendary, and the problems are not limited to the acquisition world. Red tape, inefficiency, illogical procedures, and failures to communicate plague many dimensions of military life.
During the two years Katzman and I were having discussions with the Navy, we were astounded by the pace, fear, and opacity of the bureaucracy. Dealing with the Navy—and to a lesser extent the Marine Corps—was not an exercise in “hurry up and wait.” It was simply wait. Staff people rarely returned phone calls or emails. Meetings took months to schedule and were frequently canceled. Decision makers were kept afar by staffers who thought they were serving their bosses.
We once received a “request for information” for insight into an area squarely in our wheelhouse. It was incomprehensible. (And I thought most legal writing was obtuse.) Bewildered and frustrated (after all, we were not trying to sell the Navy anything, just provide insight), I turned to a friend who had spent 25 years as a successful naval officer and another 15 as a Beltway consultant to interpret the document. He laughed and explained that the RFI was written for a preferred vendor and was thus a “CYA” fig leaf. Nevertheless, he helped us prepare a response, which we submitted. We never heard back.
If the Navy wants to discourage tech companies, educators, and other non-DoD contractors from sharing their expertise, it needs to do nothing more than stay the course. If, however, the new Naval University leadership wants to adopt best-in-breed technology and teaching tools, it needs to recognize that the current bureaucracy needs an overhaul.
Feasting on Low-Hanging Fruit
When Katzman and I first approached senior leaders at the Naval War College (a full year before the Under Secretary commissioned his study), we shared the secret sauce that was transforming at least one area of civilian higher education: the delivery of graduate degree programs online. Katzman explained that when he co-founded 2U in 2008, top universities were understandably opposed to online programs. Earlier experiments with computer-based learning had been overwhelmingly unsatisfying. Online education would only work if it really enhanced learning.
To do that, Katzman had to convince professors he could help them be better teachers and administrators and trustees that the university’s brand would not be diluted by conferring degrees to students who might never set a foot on the campus. Some of the story was conveyed through an article I wrote for Inside Higher Education.) So, when Katzman and I met with senior folks in Newport and Washington, we assumed there would be questions about how the Navy could extend its premier graduate programs to more officers via online tools, but there was zero interest. Instead, we were encouraged to meet with the people at the Naval Education and Training Command (NETC) to discuss the CNO’s “ready relevant learning” initiative. And it was with those folks that Katzman conceived a bold idea.
In a meeting with NETC folks, Katzman asked, “What if sailors could earn a bachelor’s degree at the same time they are going through A-school? What if while learning how to fix a pump or the radar gear, they were learning the theory behind the technology: hydrodynamics or electrical engineering? And what if they got those degrees from top, name-brand schools? What if it did not cost the Navy or the individual sailor a dime; and the programs were structured for the demands and realities of a sailor’s schedule?”
The decision maker—a Navy captain responsible for much of the training of one naval community—said, “Let’s do it.”
Over the next year, Katzman’s team put together such a program. He got two top universities to agree to create online bachelor’s programs just for the Navy. Four different majors would be offered, and students would be able to start, stop, and restart courses—in response to the unpredictable demands of military training and deployments—without any loss of credits or tuition. And for sailors who could not complete the program, Katzman even enlisted the participation of a top community college to accept all the credits the sailor had earned and apply them toward an associate’s degree. Most remarkably, the program would not cost the Navy or individual sailors a dime more than what the federal tuition assistance program already provides.
Because the Education for Seapower report was about to be issued, we were told nothing was going to happen for a while. But now that the report is out, this initiative could form the basis of a first, big, quick win for the Department of the Navy’s new Chief Learning Officer.
The Enlisted Opportunity
Hidden deep within Education for Seapower are a few paragraphs about enlisted education. Importantly, Mr. Kroger has said that improving enlisted education opportunities is a high priority for him and for the Sea Services. In a candid commentary on the U.S. Naval Institute Blog, Mr. Kroger related his personal experience of enlisting in the Marine Corps on his 17th birthday after a less-than-stellar high school career. The Marine Corps gave him a “new trajectory” and appreciation for the value of education.
I shared Mr. Kroger’s blog with my son, an enlisted Marine just back from his first Middle East deployment. And I wrote about my conversations with my son in an article for The Hill.
Most of the comments and emails I received in response to that article were positive and supportive. Several emails came from people who had earned undergraduate degrees while in the service. One common theme was that earning a degree while on active duty was one of the most valuable aspects of an experience they valued enormously. The other common theme was that they succeeded in spite of the Navy bureaucracy.
During our work on the Navy program, Katzman and I tried to understand just how easy (or hard) it was for sailors to use tuition assistance monies and enroll in community college courses.
The difficulties of taking advantage of benefits available to service members or veterans was the inspiration behind Military.com. When Navy lieutenant Chris Michel and his Harvard Business School classmate Anne Dwane launched the new webstie in 1999, they knew all the relevant information, regulations, and procedures were “out there” and available for service members. It was just mindbogglingly difficult to access, sort, and comprehend. Making information clear, logical, and user friendly is why Military.com today enjoys more than 10 million members.
The Navy and Marine Corps value education, and there are opportunities for it. But getting a college degree while on active duty is more challenging than it needs to be. The “easier” part will be promoting officer attendance at war colleges and graduate school.
The realities of everyday military life conspire against pursuing a part-time degree while working a full-time job as an enlisted sailor or Marine. Mr. Kroger needs to convince a tradition-bound organization to recognize its own limitations of people, technology, and bureaucracy. If he can, he will be able to have an impact with a chance to do the greatest good—among the enlisted sailors and Marines who comprise the heart and soul of America’s naval fighting force.