Senator Walsh’s Unrepresentative Black Mark on Professional Military Education

July 26, 2014

Not unreasonably, Tufts University professor and Washington Post columnist Dan Drezner has some things to say about Montana Senator John Walsh’s plagiarized masters paper at the Army War College. As his headline puts it, “On what academic planet does a 14 page paper merit John Walsh an M.A.?”

Actually, it’s a bit complicated.

First off, let’s stipulate that I think the evidence crystal clear that Walsh intentionally plagiarized the paper. This wasn’t a case of shoddy citation. He deliberately included large chunks of others’ text, passing them off not only as his own research but as his own analysis, with zero indication that he’d referenced said others. Had he been caught, he’d not only have had his thesis rejected but likely not only been kicked out of the Army War College but ended his career with prejudice. As it is, AWC has convened an academic review board to consider revoking his degree; it should.

Second, I concur with Drezner that Walsh wrote an exceedingly bad paper even aside from the plagiarism issues.

But, as someone about to start his second year teaching in a sister Professional Military Education (PME) institution, I’d push back on the notion expressed in both the headline and the more emphatic concluding sentence of Drezner’s piece, “how in the hell did this piece of s**t result in the awarding of an M.A. degree?”

I teach at an intermediate service school, the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and Walsh’s degree was from a senior service school, the Army War College. But the master’s requirements are fairly similar. At CSC, the master’s program is optional; at many other professional military education schools, it’s required. But a relatively short paper is often the norm. At CSC, the minimum is 20 pages and we emphatically don’t call it a “master’s thesis” because, as Drezner correctly notes, a paper of that length doesn’t merit that name.

But PME isn’t grad school. It’s graduate level education and, at least at my institution, quite rigorous and demanding. The paper requirement is light by political science or history master’s program standards but we’re not awarding political science or history master’s degrees. (Although it’s worth noting that many civilian masters programs have a non-thesis option. Indeed, I didn’t write a thesis for my MA in political science at Jacksonville State. I took 36 credit hours of course work instead of 30 hours plus a thesis because I needed to be done in a year and was advised to go that route.)

At CSC, we offer an optional Master of Military Studies.  Like our sister senior service school, the Marine Corps War College, the Army War College awards a Master of Strategic Studies.  All these schools are accredited to award these degrees by the same body that oversees civilian universities in their region (the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in our case and the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools in the case of AWC) and by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to award Joint Professional Military Education degrees.

As previously noted, that Walsh’s paper passed muster with his faculty even aside from the plagiarism issue is rather embarrassing. It speaks to some inconsistencies across PME that have been widely documented elsewhere, perhaps most ably by Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College. (Although, in fairness, some pretty lousy master’s papers manage to get through at non-PME institutions, including at some rather prestigious schools, from time to time.)

Despite those problems, however, the war colleges and command and staff colleges are incredibly intensive institutions. They require far more contact hours and much more extensive – and broader – course work than is typical for a master’s degree. Taking 12 hours of class work a week, as I did during my master’s work, was unusually ambitious. It’s typical for our students to be in class twice that long; during exercises, they can have well over 40 hours a week in the classroom, in addition to outside reading, writing, and research requirements.

Whatever problems the Army War College might have—and I’d note they’re under different leadership now than they were when Walsh graduated and that I have enormous respect for their current dean—their curriculum is intensive. Their website is slightly out of date but here’s their program as of the 2011 academic year:

  • Courses on strategic thinking, theory of war and strategy, strategic leadership, national security policy and strategy, theater strategy and campaigning, and defense enterprise management, as well as five elective courses
  • An individual strategy research project culminating in a research manuscript which meets “contemporary standards for professional scholarship”
  • A strategic decision making exercise in which students confront multiple crises and navigate interrelated strategic processes including interagency policymaking, crisis action planning, multinational coordination, and resourcing
  • A weeklong national security seminar featuring nationally-known guest speakers.

In short, it’s not a 14-page paper that justifies the awarding of a master’s degree but rather a very intensive course of study. The “thesis lite” is designed to give students a taste of a typical graduate school experience while recognizing that they’ve only got 10 months to get the degree completed before going on to another demanding assignment in the operating forces and that the students have to balance their writing and research with all the other coursework, family obligations, and various non-academic professional responsibilities.

As I was settling in last year, I had a lot of discussions with my colleagues about just this issue: How much is PME really like graduate school? One of my more senior colleagues hit on the perfect analogy: It’s very much akin to an Executive MBA program.

In a typical master’s program—and, certainly, most doctoral programs—the students tend to be very young and highly focused on a relatively narrow subject matter. Typically, they’re recently out of an undergraduate program in the same or a closely related field of study at which they’ve excelled. By contrast, intermediate- and senior-level PME, like EMBA programs, takes in mid-career professionals who have excelled in their careers but mostly not been in a classroom in a decade or more and have come from a wide variety of academic backgrounds.

It’s a very different program than what Drezner’s students are getting at Tufts. But they’re definitely earning their master’s degrees.

Original article