“The opportunity to spend a semester there as a Fulbright scholar has changed the way I look at military education, the private sector, and America’s global role.”
By Dr. David Last, 2015-2016 Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Peace and War Studies at Norwich University
The road from Montpelier to Northfield, Vermont, winds through a narrow valley flanked by the Dog River and the Vermont Yankee Railway. Arriving in Northfield in January I was puzzled by the house numbers—1824, 1848, 1853—until I realized that these were the dates they were built. Norwich University is the oldest private military academy in America, established in 1819 and moved to Northfield after a fire in 1866. It was the birthplace of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in 1916, and plays an important role in developing new models for citizen soldier education.
Although I teach at Canada’s Royal Military College, just five hours away, and study the effect of military education on security, I had never visited Norwich and was only dimly aware that it existed. The opportunity to spend a semester there as a Fulbright scholar has changed the way I look at military education, the private sector, and America’s global role. It provided an opportunity to lead two experiments in undergraduate military education, from which I hope other military academies will benefit. I’m also looking forward to spending more time in Vermont in the future.
Norwich University was founded by Captain Alden Partridge of the US Army Engineers. Educated at West Point and appointed acting superintendent when he was just 29, he clashed with colleagues over his insistence on practical education. When forced to leave the army, he established the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy at Norwich, Vermont. Almost 200 years later, Norwich University is an extraordinary place.
Around the world, and particularly in NATO countries, leaders are talking about the need for joint, inter-agency, civil-military, multi-national, and public-private partnerships to meet emerging security challenges. But most of the world’s service academies are jealously single-service public institutions where innovation is constrained by legislation, tradition, and staff turnover. Norwich is different. Two thirds of its students are cadets who wear uniform to class, and a third choose a “civilian lifestyle.” It has ROTC cadets from army, navy, air force, and marines. It has civilian and military students from 19 countries. It treats undergraduate students like adults and gives them research and work-study opportunities. It offers Masters programs online to mid-career professionals. Until I saw all this first hand I would not have guessed at the dynamism of a small private military academy with a long-serving president. It is an outstanding leadership laboratory from the top down.
The Norwich Fulbright experience has also changed the way I look at the private sector. As a long-term public servant, I harbour suspicions about the greed and self-interest of the private sector. I trust government, not business, to serve the public interest, and look at the privatization of police and military power with grave misgiving. My year at the US Army Command and General Staff College reinforced this, but my semester at Norwich showed me a different face of the public-private partnership. The deep culture of public service and the cultivation of citizen-soldier leadership combines with a generous, committed alumni and the celebration of enterprise that gives back to the institution. The obvious agility and innovation of Norwich as a private institution is a convincing argument for the superiority of private sector military education, at least in this case. Delegations from Cote d’Ivoire and Thailand during my visit seemed to agree.
Norwich faculty and international students showed me a different way for America to interact with a global community. Thirty years in the Canadian army serving overseas with NATO and UN missions left me wary of American influence, and studying international political economy warned me of the harm that a hegemon can do. As a foreign student at Leavenworth, I was aware of the conscious effort to socialize allies, and the irony of leaders like Zia ul Haq in the CGSC “Hall of Honour.” Norwich turns a different face to the world, through foreign cadets and civilian students, study travel, exchanges, and partnership arrangements that are genuine collaborations, not campaigns to influence allies. The rumpled professorial civilians with impressive CVs, teaching in anachronistic army green uniforms, represent the very best of American altruism and internationalism.
Finally, I had a unique opportunity to experiment with undergraduate military education. Norwich calls itself a leadership laboratory, and has innovated since its foundation. I took American and Taiwanese cadets to meet francophone and Anglophone Canadian cadets to an international workshop on non-violent civil resistance, observed discussions of cross-cultural communication with ROTC leaders at six private universities, and travelled to Israel-Palestine with American and Canadian cadets funded by Olmsted and Fulbright respectively. We have survey data about knowledge of, and attitudes towards, non-violent conflict. We conducted a pilot cadet-led field study on peace and conflict, and have a draft handbook for other military academies. We can compare institutional responses to practitioner research on two projects.
The four months at Norwich University flew by. Talking to cadets and students daily, getting to know the institution, and travelling with future American and Canadian leaders has changed the way I see military education, the contribution of the private sector, and American influence abroad. I look forward to continuing work with friends and colleagues from Norwich.
The road to Norwich is grey and icy in January, but lined with trees in bloom by early May. It was much harder to leave than to arrive.