What Just Happened at the Naval Postgraduate School?

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The Naval Postgraduate School

Last week the Secretary of the Navy dismissed the top officials at my school – one of the sadder events in its century-plus history.

How did this happen?

And more broadly, just what goes on at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.?  These are the questions I have heard most often in the past several days, so I’ll try to answer them.

The simple response to “What happened?” is that Navy Secretary Ray Mabus lost confidence in President Dan Oliver and Provost Leonard Ferrari because of their apparent inability to remain in compliance with the regulations, financial and otherwise, that govern us. The long Inspector General reports that have been publicly posted also provide hints at concern over the school’s seeming strategic “drift” away from its core mission that calls for a primary focus on educating naval officers.

On this point, I can only say that the problems complying with regulations that I am aware of grew out of deep dedication to pursuit of the core mission of education – extending to all our services and to our many allies around the world who send their best officers to us. Both our president and provost put mission first; it appears that sometimes they colored outside the lines in their efforts to do so.

It is important also to correct the misimpression created by the official finding that these officials accepted inappropriate “gifts.” This sounds like people were on the take. Hardly. President Oliver and Provost Ferrari, with both of whom I have worked closely since each came to the Naval Postgraduate School, are men of unquestioned integrity.

For all their probity, though, I am the first to admit having had strong disagreements with the provost (often) and with the president (occasionally) on matters of the school’s management and strategic direction. Both were always open to hearing other points of view, even if their decisions sometimes left me shaking my head.

It is this point about openness to divergent views that is, I think, the most attractive feature of the Naval Postgraduate School – and begins to answer the question about what goes on here.

This is a place to which many of our students come with extensive combat experience. Given the mixed results of the past decade of war, they often have key insights about how to fight smarter and how to operate more efficiently. They come together with faculty from across a range of disciplines, but who all share a deep interest in military and security affairs. At even the finest universities, there will only be a handful of faculty who specialize in conflict-related studies. Here just about everybody does.

And what a faculty it is. Guillermo Owen in our math department has twice been nominated for the Nobel Prize in economics. Dorothy Denning in my department is one of the world’s leading computer scientists, and was recently inducted into the Cyber Security Hall of Fame. Douglas Porch is one the most eminent military historians of our time. The list goes on and on.

Our students are just as amazing. Admiral William McRaven, head of the Special Operations Command and the man who got bin Laden, is an alumnus of our special operations program. Almost three dozen astronauts did their studies here. Two of them died on missions. Our international alumni include many who are now general officers playing leading roles in their countries’ fights against terrorist organizations.

All in all, what goes on at the Naval Postgraduate School is quite scintillating. I am in my 20th year teaching here, and over the course of my career have turned down several offers to go elsewhere. Partly because of gratitude for the opportunity to serve in this way at such a challenging time, and partly, God forgive me, because the terrible problems we study are so complex and interesting.

Yes, I can see why Secretary Mabus lost confidence in our president and provost. The mission was being pursued with insufficient attention given to compliance, and with some drift in strategic direction. But I hope he has confidence in our ability to keep contributing to the nation’s, and our world’s, security – and to do so while following the rules and keeping our focus on the core mission of military education.

John Arquilla is professor and chair in the defense analysis department at the Naval Postgraduate School.  The views expressed are his alone.