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Degrees of separation 

When it comes to academics, the Air Force Academy soars above other schools in survey after survey. It's graduated 35 Rhodes scholars in the past 50 years.

So it might seem strange that the academy has come under scrutiny on faculty issues, including credentials and diversity, and whether it's time to welcome more civilian instructors, given the heavy demand on military for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention military professors' higher cost.

"We live in a resource-constrained environment across America," says Dan Sitterly, Air Force director of force development at the Pentagon, in an interview. "The Air Force is no different. I have a responsibility to make sure we are doing everything we can to execute our mission in the most efficient way we can, and that includes the Air Force Academy."

Of particular interest to Sitterly is an ongoing study of whether military members chosen to obtain advanced degrees are being used appropriately at the Air Force's operational assignments and its learning institutions. A follow-up study due to begin next spring will examine the mix of civilian and military faculty at the academy, he says.

The studies, by the Rand Corp., stem from a House Armed Services Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee finding earlier this year that the academy hasn't done enough to hire civilian faculty. About a third of the faculty is considered civilian, with a third of those "civilians" actually retired military.

In addition, some faculty members are concerned that military members' credentials are inferior to those of civilians, which could affect how cadets learn, particularly in advanced courses.

"There's been entrenched practices of being really loose about credentials of military faculty," says one civilian faculty member, remaining anonymous for fear of retribution. The academy doesn't award tenure but rather uses rolling contracts in which a year is added annually if professors perform well.

"The studies that Rand is doing are clearly the result of some discussions ... at a time when we have a high demand for military members [for deployments] but also have budget constraints," says AFA dean of faculty Brig. Gen. Dana Born.

An academy education now costs $417,000 per cadet, less than the $451,000 spent by the U.S. Military Academy, which has a lower ratio of civilian faculty, but more than the $379,000 at the U.S. Naval Academy, where 60 percent of faculty are civilian.

Warriors in the classroom

The academy began hiring civilian professors in 1993, and long adhered to a guideline of 25 percent civilian faculty. In 2003 and 2004, retired Adm. Charles Larson reviewed the academy's faculty situation at the Air Force secretary's request and recommended hiring more civilians to improve quality and increase diversity, which some say would decrease cost.

Born resisted, saying in a written response, "Substantially altering this mix puts at risk the essential military character of the institution. ... Warriors best produce warriors."

Six years later, Born says civilians comprise 33 percent of the faculty, about 182 of 545 instructors, due to the nation's wars and the Pentagon's demand for more foreign language classes. A 2009 accreditation study noted 37 professor vacancies, adding, "While military deployments can enable career advancement for the military faculty, they pose challenges to the learning environment already stressed by the absence of a full allocated teaching faculty."

Among active-duty military faculty, only 40 percent have doctoral degrees, compared to 80 percent of civilian faculty. Yet Born denies allegations that military instructors are less educated than their civilian counterparts. One reason for the disparity is the academy's practice of having captains and majors with master's degrees teach low-level courses. Born asserts that all AFA instructors have graduate degrees in the areas they teach, or related areas.

Not true, says the civilian faculty member who spoke on condition of anonymity: "For a decade, 60 percent of cadets took their first math course from instructors who did not have enough graduate school training to teach math."

The House subcommittee also found civilian faculty bring "more standard academic credentials" and "outside perspective." It cited the Larson report's finding that civilians bring access to research, an awareness of the "increasingly large and critical roles played by civilians" at the Pentagon and in the Air Force, and "a fresh and often provocative world view not bounded by military culture."

Which brings us to the issue of diversity, one of seven AFA strategic goals. Turns out that 34 percent of civilian faculty are actually retired military members. And while females and minorities each account for more than 21 percent of the Cadet Wing, faculty numbers haven't kept pace. Born says women today comprise 21 percent of faculty, up from 14 percent seven years ago. Racial/ethnic minorities comprise a mere 8 percent of faculty, down from 8.8 percent last year.

Although the academy has tried to lure more qualified women and minorities to the faculty and even added a high-level diversity officer this year, the task is complicated by the presence of that 25-percent-civilian guideline and the fact that the service's senior ranks — those likely to hold doctoral degrees — lack diversity, according to a June 2010 Air Force "talking points" paper.

Born says the academy has sought to add diversity through new hires and visiting faculty. It also selects minority airmen for graduate studies with their ultimate destiny an academy teaching job.

But she admits, "It is a challenge."

All about the Ph.D.

Scott Carrell, a 1995 AFA graduate and former academy professor who holds a doctoral degree in economics, is now an assistant professor at the University of California-Davis, where he's conducted several studies using academy data.

"We concluded that more experienced and more senior faculty produce students who have significantly better long-term achievement," Carrell says, likening the junior military faculty, those with only master's degrees, to adjunct professors at other universities. They turn over frequently. "So from a policy perspective, you would argue for more stability on the faculty. You can't distinguish between military and civilian. It's all about experience and whether they have a Ph.D."

So the question is, can the Air Force afford to supply the academy with all the doctoral degrees a perfect world would require, and not increase the percentage of the civilian faculty?

The Rand studies are expected to answer those questions, and could lead to dramatic changes in who teaches cadets.

"It costs me three years to have [a military member] in school getting a Ph.D.," Sitterly says. "Since I have a limited amount of money and man years, we have to make sure we have the right mix from the operational perspective and academic perspective. I'm trying to find out what is the right mix, so we get the most efficient use of people. We're looking for best return for the taxpayer and the cadets."

zubeck@csindy.com

  • Does the Air Force Academy have the right mix of civilian and active-duty profs?

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