Gen. McChrystal’s Secret Yale Course (UPDATED)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Given my basic cynicism toward just about everything, I’m difficult to shock. But I was certainly shocked to learn that Yale University is allowing Gen. Stanley McChrystal to teach a course that enrolled students have to agree in writing not to discuss. Here is Gian Gentile, a professor at West Point, criticizing the course in The Atlantic:

Enter retired four-star Army General Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal, who formerly led special operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and later became a senior American commander in Afghanistan, now teaches a class at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, where he integrates his military experience with his studies on leadership. In the New York Times, McCyrstal is quoted as saying “the only reason I’m here to teach,” compared with “somebody who’s got a Ph.D., is because I’ve been through it.”

McChrystal must have been through something ominous because, according to Elisabeth Bumiller’s Times article, Yale University imposes restrictions on students who sit in McChrystal’s classes, demanding that they take notes on an “off the record” basis — i.e., not for attribution.

Yale’s extraordinary act seems drastically out of place with notions of academic and intellectual freedom. At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where I teach history, intellectual freedom is fiercely encouraged and protected. In addition, there is also accountability. No matter what I say in my history classes – either about history or my combat experience — cadets are free to tell it to the world, critique it, or reject it privately or publicly. Restrictions on cadets don’t exist even for an instructor with direct ties to the U.S. military. (I did two combat tours in Iraq, the second one in command of a combat battalion in West Baghdad at the height of Iraq’s Shia-Sunni civil war in 2006.)

Yale University’s readiness to impose special conditions — enabling a retired American four-star general with celebrity appeal to teach classes on his own terms — is puzzling. Why would Yale bend the dictates of academic freedom, especially knowing that McChrystal’s students have little personal knowledge of the true nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, much less of the officers who’ve decisively shaped their conduct? Have at least portions of the Yale faculty have been seduced by the “better war” myth — the notion that to win wars of occupation inside the Muslim World, the trick is to put the right general in charge and tweak the tactics of counterinsurgency with clever political science theories that win hearts and minds?

I don’t know what I find more distressing: Yale’s willingness to offer such a course or students’ willingness to take it. I just hope that the course finds its Bradley Manning — a student brave enough to let the world know what Gen. McChrystal believes is so sensitive that it cannot see the light of day. I also highly recommend Stephen Walt’s response in FP. The title to his post, “Yale Flunks Academic Freedom,” really says it all.

UPDATE: According to two students who took the course, reports by bloggers and the media that students were required to sign non-disclosure agreements are incorrect. If so — and I have no reason to doubt the students — then the concerns in the post are obviously misplaced.

That said, contra Roger, I do not believe that Chatham House rules belong in the classroom. They are certainly appropriate for meetings of organizations that require secrecy to function, but there should be no limits whatsoever on the free exchange of ideas in a university course.

6 Responses

  1. I’m assuming that those who participate in the seminar are not required to either obtain a top secret clearance (unlike Bradley Manning), or sign some sort of legally-binding declaration of confidentiality. If not, there is nothing prohibiting them from discussing the course, “off the record” or no. Sounds more to me like McCrystal would prefer not to have to worry about being quoted (likely out of context) from his seminar. Can’t say I blame him.

  2. Liz, You’re absolutely right. I was a student in this course. It was in no way secret. We did not have to sign any non-disclosure agreements. We were free to talk about general course content with those outside the course. My personal understanding of the informal requests for non-attribution were that they enabled General McChrystal and other guests to feel comfortable being extremely honest with us about their experiences. In fact, that informal agreement led to a very open learning environment. 

  3. This is how many, perhaps most, events are conducted at the Council on Foreign Relations and Chatham House.

    Sounds like McChrystal and Yale agreed that a course could most effectively be taught using Chatham House Rules, which allow participants to freely use the information received, but not use the identity or affiliation of the speaker. See here:

    Roger Alford

  4. As a student in the course, I am disappointed with this post. Gen. McChrystal’s course on leadership should be judged based on the substance of the ideas and insights it discussed, and not the identities and concrete experiences of the instructor or the guest speakers. Talking to my “roommates, friends, parents, [and] other faculty members” [ref: Walt] about the juicy details shared by a certain Wall Street banker or a distinguished soldier- as opposed to the insights about leadership in operation which such details and life experiences were meant to illustrate- would likely be to indulge a less-than-academic urge for gossip. In the course, we read widely available texts, discussed abstract ideas on leadership pulled from them, and then saw how those could be developed in the light of real-life examples and experiences shared by Gen. McChrystal and his guests. Some of what was shared was very recent and/or consequential, and in order to encourage our guests to talk freely, we were therefore requested to not reproduce the exact details of what they shared of their personal and professional lives. We were never made to actually put pen to paper and sign anything barring us from talking about the class, and we were certainly not discouraged from talking of or about the ideas we were learning.

  5. KJH:”That said, contra Roger, I do not believe that Chatham House rules belong in the classroom. They are certainly appropriate for meetings of organizations that require secrecy to function, but there should be no limits whatsoever on the free exchange of ideas in a university course.”

    I think “the free exchange of ideas” is rather the point. When participants are free to speak openly without the fear that others will later attribute statements to them in public media the free exchange of ideas is more likely to occur. The reason War Colleges (Army War college, National War College, ect) have non-attribution policies. 

  6. Liz,

    I completely disagree.  Learning is not something that simply happens between a teacher and his or her students; it happens through the endless discussions between students over the course of their education about what they learn.  Chatham House rules completely undermine that.

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