Given that all the nation’s colleges and universities are available for the Air Force, why should USAF be running its own graduate school for scientists and engineers
In the 1990s, USAF leaders decided they did not have an acceptable answer to that question, and they proposed to end in-residence graduate training provided at the Air Force Institute of Technology, located at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.
The plan was soon scrapped, but it already had slowed enrollments at AFIT and raised questions about USAF’s commitment to the whole area of Science and Technology. Since then, there has been an ongoing debate over whether USAF is overemphasizing current readiness at the expense of long-range development of USAF’s S&T base.
Gen. Robert T. Marsh, USAF (Ret.), commander of Air Force Systems Command from 1981-84, is one of those concerned.
“There has been a de-emphasis in this whole area,” said Marsh in a recent interview, “and it’s unlike any prior period of our history in the Air Force. I think that, despite very austere times, we’ve always kept that forward vision of the Air Force and always protected our corps of technically oriented officers working on the future. That’s really been de-emphasized today as I see it.”
For the moment at least, the threat of eliminating AFIT’s in-residence graduate programs has abated. Last May, Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters gave AFIT high marks for its past accomplishments and said that the Air Force would continue to support it as an in-house institution.
In a written answer to queries about his decision, Peters said, “AFIT students have provided invaluable research in many areas within the Air Force while attending school. AFIT graduates are some of the best in the country, and they are the best because of the programs we are able to offer. We totally support AFIT as an agency within the Air Force and plan to keep it a vital and viable institution.”
The Toughest Job
That said, however, the Secretary conceded that enrollments in AFIT programs have fallen sharply in recent years because of force cuts, poor retention, and growing mission demands.
“One of our toughest jobs,” he said, “is deciding on the best use of our resources-whether those resources are planes and materials, or our most valuable resource, our people. While it is an easy task to identify where we would like to have AFIT graduates, in this time of personnel shortages, it is much more difficult to pull officers away from real-world, mission-critical positions for two to three years, or longer, depending on their degrees.”
Peters went on, “This is not a choice we like having to make. However, we do make the choice and that’s why this year we have a little more than 3,000 of our line, JAG, medical, and chaplain officers either attending, graduating, or inbound to AFIT programs, both in residence in Dayton or at civilian institutions around the country.”
Col. George K. Haritos, commandant of AFIT, says the cuts also have created difficulties within the institute itself.
“The problem is that we had to size the graduate school, back in the spring of 1998, to accept 230 master’s students and 35 Ph.D. students every year,” he explained. “We combined two graduate schools [the Graduate School of Engineering and the Graduate School of Logistics and Acquisition Management] into one. We let go half the faculty from the L&AM school, going from 30 professors down to 16. And we cut some faculty from the School of Engineering. In all, we cut 43 positions, saving $3.1 million a year in pay.
“Now, the school is sized to accommodate that student load, but, because of the problems with not having enough scientists, engineers, and officers overall, the Air Force has not been able to fill our classes.”
He went on, “So, we are not receiving the number of students we need to meet the Air Force requirements and to operate efficiently. When you expect 230 master’s students and you get 175 as we did last year, and when you expect 35 Ph.D. students and you get 16, obviously there are problems. Plus you produce fewer graduates for yet another year, making the shortage of people available to fill advanced academic degree billets even more severe.”
AFIT grants master’s and doctoral degrees to those in its resident program, supervises students in graduate programs at civilian universities, and oversees officers in education with industry programs. Its Civilian Institution Programs places students in more than 400 civilian universities, research centers, hospitals, and industrial organizations in the United States and other countries. Other resident programs offer short, nondegree courses for professional continuing education and provide consultation services to Air Force commanders and staffs.
Back to McCook
The institute began in 1919 as the Air School of Application, located at McCook Field, Ohio. It had six officers in training. Some early graduates were sent on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to take aeronautical engineering. Among them was Lt. Jimmy Doolittle, who earned both a master’s and doctoral degree there.
Over the years, the institution underwent several organizational and name changes. In 1950, its jurisdiction was shifted from Air Materiel Command to Air University, and, four years later, Congress authorized the AU commander to grant degrees to graduates of the in-residence programs.
In 1967, AFIT became a member of what is now the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education, an association of colleges, universities, and industrial organizations in the Dayton, Ohio, area. AFIT also is active in other community and interinstitutional programs, including the Dayton Area Graduate Studies Institute, a consortium of the engineering schools of AFIT, the University of Dayton, and Wright State University.
In its more than 80 years of existence, the institute has trained some 300,000 DoD personnel, including dozens of general officers and many astronauts, 11 of whom earned their degrees in residence.
In the mid-1990s, however, Air Force leaders began to question whether the Air Force needed or could afford to continue in-residence AFIT training. The then-Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall, a former professor of engineering, proposed closing the in-house schools and contracting more training to civilian institutions. AFIT cut its planned enrollments and prepared to shut down a substantial portion of its operations.
Haritos recalls the period. “It was very late in 1996 when the tentative decision to shut down the graduate school became public,” he said. “Immediately afterwards, we were charged to explore alternatives for educating the graduate students. Nobody said that graduate education was not important. They just said that we can’t afford to do it in-house.”
He continued, “So, the commandant at the time received the order to explore the question: After AFIT is gone, what is the best way to educate people? We explored two possibilities. One was to privatize AFIT, locate it at or near Wright-Patterson, and work with several universities in Ohio to deliver Air Force-related formal graduate education and the research that goes with it. That was an unsolicited proposal from the state of Ohio. The second alternative was to send students to civilian universities, use a select group of quality graduate schools both state and private with demonstrated ability.”
Haritos noted that it took more than a year to finish the study and evaluate alternatives, and then compare them with the in-house AFIT.
“We used criteria that were identified in conjunction with AU at the time,” he said. “The criteria were quality of education, expected focus of curricula and research to Air Force needs, responsiveness to evolving Air Force requirements, and cost.”
The findings were presented to Peters in early 1998. He concluded that keeping AFIT clearly was the correct choice. That is when he decided AFIT would stay open.
A little later, Air University hired the consulting firm of Booz·Allen & Hamilton to perform an independent cost-benefits study of the alternatives. That analysis again showed AFIT’s in-house program to be superior.
“I remember the figures,” said Haritos, “because I was heavily involved with finalizing the numbers. The AFIT in-house cost of graduate education was $19.9 million per year. Going to a select group of good universities was $18.6 million per year. So we are talking about $1.3 million per year.”
Widnall, now back in her position as professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, still defends privatization. In a written response to questions, she said, “With the dramatic budget cuts faced by the Air Force–and I understand it’s getting worse–we must continually re-examine the way we do things, especially those things which are supportive of but are not actually our core mission.
“You have seen privatization initiatives across the entire range of support activities in the Air Force, from base housing, to food services, to research and development. These privatization efforts have assured the Air Force that it was getting best value for its dollar and have set a standard for in-house activities to measure themselves against and to compete with world-class external firms.
“In some cases, public-private partnerships have resulted, enriching both partners, not with money but with knowledge and experience. It is very important that Air Force personnel have access to higher education in science and engineering and other core specialties. How they do this is a subject for constant re-examination. Cost and quality are both issues.
“Weighing unique Air Force needs against the importance of access to the best in higher education is also important. When the multiple of the effective cost of in-house AFIT tuition for a comparable engineering degree gets too large, say a factor of five, then I do think a serious re-examination is in order for those programs that are comparable to those offered by civilian universities. We will always have unique needs because of our arcane business methods.”
Air Force Needs Come First
Marsh disagrees. In an interview, he said, “Those of us on the other side have long argued that AFIT has met the changing needs of the Air Force over many years in an exemplary fashion. An institution like AFIT, that is Air Force-run, is more adaptable to the changing academic needs of the Air Force than are civilian institutions.”
Although Marsh earned his own master of science degrees in instrumentation engineering and aeronautical engineering under AFIT at the University of Michigan, he says that AFIT’s in-house programs have a flexibility that civilian institutions can’t match.
“To institute even a new course out in the civilian institution world, it takes years to get the faculty all to agree that there’s even a need for a new course, to get it structured, and to approve the curriculum,” said Marsh. “By contrast, as the Air Force evolved and we saw needs for our people to understand stealth technology, laser and directed-energy technology, and new sensor technology, … as we saw those needs developing, the Air Force leadership insisted that AFIT develop curricula to deal with those new subjects.”
He went on, “Another point is that AFIT has provided the opportunity for the Air Force to accomplish a lot of important research and engineering that was applicable to Air Force needs through the graduate thesis program of students. We have, if you will, vectored students toward subjects of important interest to the service. …
“There have been attempts to quantify those contributions over time and they have shown that pretty impressive sums have resulted. It has been good research because most of it was performed in conjunction with the Air Force laboratories there at Wright-Patterson. They could take advantage of the opportunities right there at the base to do work that had important relevance to the Air Force.”
Another AFSC commander (1984-87), Gen. Lawrence A. Skantze, USAF (Ret.), also stresses the importance of AFIT’s research capabilities. Skantze earned his master’s degree in nuclear engineering in residence in 1959. In an interview, Skantze recalled his reaction to the proposed shutdown.
“I wrote a letter to the Chief of Staff,” he said, “and pointed out that, as a graduate of AFIT, I saw the unique educational opportunity that was provided within an Air Force environment. You couldn’t duplicate that elsewhere because of the proximity of the laboratories and the active program offices [at Wright-Patterson]. In other words, as you did your research work, you had the real world of Air Force acquisition and Science and Technology taking place all around you, and you could immerse yourself in that part of the environment to understand it.”
Board of Visitors Report
While the prospect of privatization has diminished, defenders of scientific and technical education see other, more serious dangers to AFIT. Last March, for example, the institute’s Board of Visitors took a hard look at the institute as a whole and concluded that it had major problems. In its written report, the board concluded:
- AFIT’s low production rate is a major factor “in the eroding scientific and technical base of the Air Force.”
- AFIT is in “passive but inexorable shutdown mode despite the Secretary of the Air Force decision to keep it open.”
- Failure to meet enrollment targets has resulted in underuse of faculty and facilities and increased costs per student.
- There is no evidence that USAF has addressed the importance of AFIT to the service.
The board complained, too, that its past recommendations for improvements “appear to be languishing in the bureaucracy process.”
Summing up its findings, the board said it had found two major causes of “the run down of AFIT and its capabilities.” One is what the board called “the extraordinary emphasis on readiness.” This, the report said, has resulted in a persistent reduction in investment for AFIT and endangered its ability to survive as a first-quality institution. The other is that USAF and AFIT have been forced to “adapt in a dysfunctional manner, creating a faculty that is misaligned with student load, a student body that is persistently undersized, and a graduation mix that is not meeting USAF needs.”
For the near term, the Board of Visitors called for the Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff jointly to order increased enrollment in AFIT. For the long term, it said, the Air Force should decide on “core graduate education requirements” that will provide a steady stream of expertise into critical skill areas. In the absence of a clear-cut commitment to Science and Technology-educated officers, the board’s report said that USAF must accept a less capable future force, ranging from lower skilled manning in USAF labs to lack of smart uniformed buyers in its acquisition corps.
The Board of Visitors noted, too, that until the late 1980s, the commandant of AFIT had been a two-star general officer. The position was later demoted to one-star rank and, more recently, to colonel. “Curiously,” the report said, “all formal education institutions in the USAF other than AFIT ‘earn’ a flag command billet, … the Air Force Academy (three stars) and Air University (four stars). Lack of a general officer billet is a clear institutional signal of AFIT’s lower level of importance.”
Skantze cited other evidence of USAF’s neglect of AFIT and of Science and Technology in general. Recalling the 1992 consolidation of Air Force Systems Command and Air Force Logistics Command, he said, “Before the merger, the commander of Air Force Systems Command was the one who defended the need to invest in Science and Technology and in AFIT education. That 800-pound gorilla no longer exists. So, the dependency is falling on the commander of Air Force Materiel Command to fight for both S&T and AFIT while at the same time he is not only burdened with overseeing the acquisition of new systems but with providing the logistics support for the current fielded system. That is an awful lot for one man to have on his plate.”
“An Essential Element”
Marsh agrees that AFIT needs more top-level support. “You have to have a corporate decision that such an institution is vital to the future of the Air Force,” he said. “It’s an essential element, just as the Air University is. We recognize that professional development is essential to the Air Force no matter what its size or structure. I think we have to recognize that a technical development institution also is absolutely essential.
“You have to make that decision. Then, you have to enunciate it to the whole force, … make it a matter of policy, … and then, obviously, you have to allocate the necessary resources. We’re not talking about enormous resources to operate AFIT. You have to justify them to the Hill, of course, but that is not a problem. But it takes a determination on the part of the Air Force that the acquisition and retention of technically qualified officers are essential and to use this institution to achieve that objective.”
Commandant Haritos is hopeful about AFIT’s future. “I am optimistic,” he said. “The Secretary has gone on record that he thinks AFIT is important. I also have seen a list of [Air Force Personnel Center] initiatives designed to help with our enrollment problem. So, I am hopeful that, in the near future, we will be getting the number of students we should be getting.
“I know we have a lot of people who believe it would be a grave error to shut down AFIT. It’s not the kind of error you can reverse. It’s not like saying, ‘OK we have no money for the F-22 this year, so we won’t buy any. We know it’s going to cost more next year, so we’ll put up a little more money next year and the program will still be OK.’
“But, if you shut down AFIT, all the professors go off and find other jobs. All the staff leave and find other jobs,” said Haritos. “You can’t just decide you made a mistake. It’s gone forever. You can’t just start a university from the ground up. If we decide, as corporate Air Force, that we don’t need graduate education, we had better be absolutely certain that we are making the right decision.”
Bruce D. Callander, a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine, served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, serving as editor from 1972 to 1986. His most recent story for Air Force Magazine, “The Recruiting and Retention Problems Continue,” appeared in the June 2000 issue.