In the aftermath of unprecedented NPS firings, some fear the Navy is questioning the school’s very existence.


The day after U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced the immediate dismissal of the Naval Postgraduate School’s top two officials, Under Secretary of the Navy Robert O. Work touched down in Monterey and spent exactly 12 minutes with local reporters. 

“The under secretary has to catch a plane back to the Pentagon,” NPS spokesman Alan Richmond said by way of introduction, as Work walked around a big puddle on the front steps of Hermann Hall, the old Del Monte Hotel. 

Work assured the group that both he personally, as well as the Navy, had no intention of turning their backs on the prestigious school. “I love Monterey,” Work said, even though it was a wet and windy November afternoon. “In fact, my wife [and I], if we could retire someplace, this is where we’d want to retire.”

He used the language that appears in almost every discussion of NPS – “crown jewel,” “gem” – that makes the Navy sound like it’s protecting something of great value. “The Navy values this organization. It’s a treasure for us,” he said.

That is difficult to debate. NPS functions as the sophisticated brain stem of the mightiest national military on earth, feeding developers of innovative technology and brilliant leaders to the Navy, other branches of the U.S. armed forces, law enforcement agencies and even allied nations. 

But Work’s reassurance is easier to question. 

His words felt half-hearted to many insiders – including a former provost and a decorated NPS grad – given the Navy’s decision to fire former President Dan Oliver, a retired Navy three-star admiral, and place Provost Leonard Ferrari on administrative leave, based on the findings of a federal investigation released a week earlier. 

The two had been widely respected at the helm of NPS, and they represent a pivotal time in the school’s 100-year history, taking it in a decidedly more academic direction. 

The firings, then, leave space for trying to understand exactly what the Navy was going for. Only Work had to take off, leaving reporters to look for answers elsewhere. 

If some of those answers prove credible, there’s a serious existential crisis ahead for NPS, and the brain stem of the U.S. military might be getting rewired – or eliminated altogether.

~ ~ ~

Graduation at NPS, which happens four times a year, is a good way to make a civilian feel inadequate. Uniformed graduates, whose buttons reflect the light in ways drab academic gowns at civilian graduations never could, sit at attention through the whole ceremony. 

The dissertations the grads have completed tackle subjects like predictive technology and outsourcing security to private firms. The takeaway: NPS students, many of whom pursue their studies after returning from tours abroad, are addressing real-life military problems. 

The hundreds of research projects completed last year, along with a long list of classified work, include efforts to develop precise geolocation techniques based on cell subscribers’ messages; predict how well Taliban propaganda resonates among the indigenous Afghan population; and use social media to engage young nuclear scientists in a debate about nuclear technology. Three patents were granted. 

The 1,760 graduates at NPS last year included students from Pakistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Students and faculty at NPS help improve unmanned aircraft, aka drones. They’re leaders in cyber-warfare research, with a project currently underway for Gen. Keith Alexander, the country’s top cyber commander. 

NPS has proved nimble in a rapidly changing world. Within two months after 9/11, academic leaders developed a new interdisciplinary curriculum in homeland security and defense. It’s a sharp contrast to the plodding pace associated with much of academia.

Some NPS professors are frustrated the military doesn’t keep up with them. 

One example: Two years after Department of Defense Analysis Chair John Arquilla proposed the U.S. start communicating with some Iraqi terrorists, one of Arquilla’s students, a special-forces officer who had completed several tours in Iraq, wrote his masters thesis on the idea. Arquilla says it “became a powerful blueprint for the Awakening movement.” 

After the thesis was completed, the feds started paying some members of the Sunni opposition. As a result, some 80,000 Sunnis – including many former insurgents – quickly became an ad-hoc peacekeeping military power.

“Education on technology, cyber and homeland security are all viewed as essential to the force of the 21st century,” former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta says. “You cannot have the strongest military in the world and not have an officer core that is well educated in dealing with the technologies.”

The country’s top military minds agree. “Former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [and NPS grad] Mike Mullen told me directly that the Navy now realizes it can’t maintain front line technology without the education that’s provided by the Naval Postgraduate School,” Panetta adds. 

U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, recalls a recent conversation with Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert, who visited NPS in February. 

“The CNO said, ‘If I didn’t have the NPS, where would I get my Jedi knights?’”

~ ~ ~

Receiving professional criticism is never easy. Imagine 248 pages of it, at the end of which you lose your job. Naval Inspector General J.P. Wisecup delivered the giant stack of findings, which delve deep into conflicting sections of government code and procedural rules, in a now-infamous report issued last fall. Oliver and Ferrari had about an hour with the reports before walking down a hall to hear the Pentagon’s decision, according to sources close to them. 

What pissed off investigators most was Oliver’s decision to relocate the NPS attorney’s office from Hermann Hall to a smaller, out-of-the-way building, and let a prayer room and the Naval Postgraduate School Foundation occupy prime real estate in Hermann Hall. 

“Most striking to the team was the fact that the office of counsel, which had been located in the administrative building with senior leadership of the school, has been relocated to a bungalow, removed from the campus leadership and administrative offices,” Wisecup, a three-star admiral who served as president of the Naval War College, wrote. 

It was largely Oliver’s close relationship with the Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the school’s mission, that got him on the wrong side of inspectors. 

It started in late 2008, when NPS officials exchanged emails with Foundation leaders. Oliver asked if the Foundation would pay the honorarium to bring Nobel Laureate John Nash to campus. Nash’s speaking fee was $10,000, in excess of the federal cap of $2,000 placed on NPS. 

The economist and mathematician, made famous for his struggle with mental illness by the Academy Award-winning film A Beautiful Mind, spoke at NPS in February 2009. 

According to a write-up on the school’s website, “‘It was a surreal experience to have him here, like you almost had to pinch yourself to believe it’s real,’” said Associate Professor of Mathematics Francis Giraldo, who’d been an undergrad at Nash’s home university, Princeton, and sat across from the Nobel laureate at a special dinner for faculty and students.

That dinner, among the costs of the “one shining week” Nash spent with his wife and son at NPS, would resurface in Wisecup’s report as Oliver’s first major transgression: “solicitation of funds.” 

Those funds came from the Foundation’s $50,000 R&R fund (for recruitment and retention) – money used for taking faculty job candidates out to dinner, buying wine for receptions and hosting foreign visitors. 

The three Inspector General investigations (one each on Oliver, Ferrari and the school overall, for a total cost of $249,000) list a series of procedural errors: Oliver made appearances at Foundation fundraising events; the Foundation spent $1,277 at Pier 1 Imports on patio furniture for Oliver’s on-campus house (“It’s not like it matters,” he told investigators, since he’d repaid the Foundation); as many as 500 NPS jobs are incorrectly classified; and most egregiously, Oliver arranged for Vice President for Finance and Administration Colleen Nickles to be hired as a contractor instead of a federal employee. She had declined a direct-hire job at NPS with a salary of $162,000, but as a contractor, Nickles’ salary was set at $275,000.

Beyond the long list of procedural missteps, the report raises some fundamental questions about the core mission of NPS. The report flays the school for leaning too far toward academia, rather than classroom instruction – basically for trying too hard to resemble a research-driven, private university like Stanford. 

According to the report that got the school’s top two removed, “The focus on research by NPS management and faculty has detracted from the importance of educating naval officers.” 

But Wisecup isn’t sure how, or whom, NPS should educate. He asks whether NPS has the authority to seek private research funds, and which programs are open to civilians and international students.

“The Navy secretariat is working on the larger question of, is the mission right?” says the interim president, Rear Adm. Jan Tighe.

Depending on what the secretariat decides, the cutting-edge research in areas like cyber warfare and drone technology could dry up. Without a robust research program, faculty members worry they couldn’t attract and retain top faculty and keep NPS on the technological edge.

Arquilla’s book-lined office feels more like an English lit professor’s than a war room. His favorite class to teach is “The Roots of Strategic Culture,” which includes readings from ancient India, the 18th-century Japanese samurai story of “47 Ronin,” and the French poem “The Song of Roland,” based on a battle during the reign of Charlemagne. 

But he’s on the cutting edge of counterterrorism research, and expects it’s only a matter of time until the Pentagon reconsiders drone strikes in favor of more aggressive, wide-ranging attacks he calls “swarm tactics.” 

“You cannot be a good classroom professor if you are not up on the latest research,” Arquilla says. 

~ ~ ~

Ferrari’s predecessor, Richard Elster, has been through his share of Navy inspections – the Inspector General typically sweeps in every three years – but says this one led to an unprecedented attack on the school’s top brass. 

“I have never seen anything like this before, and I have been around the Navy 40 years, including some years in the Pentagon,” Elster says. “The closest thing was the court martial of a cardiac surgeon.” (In 1985, Cmdr. Donal M. Billig was convicted of manslaughter and negligence in three patient deaths. That conviction was overturned in 1988.) 

To Elster, the basis for axing Oliver and Ferrari was shaky at best. 

The sense by some people familiar with the Navy’s inner workings is that the firings were an overreaction – and that the attack on NPS’ leadership poses an existential threat to NPS itself. 

“I wondered how in the world this [report] got through the Navy secretariat,” Elster says. “I wondered if NPS were being set up.”

The official account, from the Inspector General’s report: “The overarching problem, as our report demonstrates, is that NPS chooses not to follow governing Navy rules, regulations and laws in the conduct of the majority of its programs, because it will not reconcile its academic philosophies and ideals with the governing standards.”

But the unofficial account, circulated by a credible bunch of retired Navy officials, is that the report is itself off-base.

Retired Adm. Henry Mauz, a Naval Academy and NPS graduate, former commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet and chairman of the NPS Foundation, opened his commencement address on March 29 with a quick joke urging young students to procreate, then knocked the Inspector General’s report.

“The investigation had some good points,” he said. “Basically, I believe it was fundamentally flawed.” 

“It was nothing illegal, just a procedural, paperwork thing,” Mauz adds. “There was no fraud, waste or abuse.” 

Not everyone on campus shares the opinion that the report was overblown. 

“I believe the report was very accurate in terms of a culture of defiance,” says Pete Randazzo, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1690. “For somebody to say the I.G. got it wrong – I think they’re still being defiant.”

Both Oliver and Ferrari were reached (Oliver via email and Ferrari by phone), but both declined to comment for this story. Ferrari’s still on administrative leave. According to sources familiar with his situation, he’s engaged in exit negotiations with the Navy, and those negotiations are wrapping up as the Navy has made a job offer to his successor. NPS declined to identify the candidate. 

Oliver wrote that he’s waiting until new leadership is announced to talk, but he dispelled rumors that he’d hired a high-profile attorney to go after the Inspector General.

“The Navy itself has made clear there were no activities that suggest any kind of corrupt practices,” Arquilla says. “The individuals who were dismissed are both men of tremendous personal integrity. That said, we have to realize we live in an environment with lots of rules. [The] pursuit of the mission of the school sometimes led to distraction from keeping to every last rule to comply with proper procedures.” 

To Panetta, who was briefed on the report as Secretary of Defense, the firings were justified. “You cannot simply just excuse them,” he says. “The one thing that we cannot forget is that the NPS is part of the military. The military has to be clear that it maintains good discipline, not only when it comes to ships at sea, but also facilities it controls on land.”

Just three weeks ago, NPS hired a new military public affairs officer to fill a long-vacant position. Lt. Cmdr. Bill Clinton (no relation to the president) had been headed for the Naval War College in Rhode Island when he was rerouted to Monterey. He says the fallout of the 2012 I.G. report was so extreme because it was a follow-up to earlier red flags the 2009 report raised. 

“This atmosphere of defiance of statutory requirements and the Department of the Navy rules and regulations must cease,” Wisecup wrote.

Clinton puts it this way: “If by 2015 it’s not fixed, somebody’s head is really going to roll.” 

~ ~ ~

The Monterey Bay region is well acquainted with the Base Realignment and Closure process, and still reeling from the economic impact of closing Fort Ord in 1991. 

“I think there’s always a threat to NPS,” says Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer, a retired Army colonel. “The school’s already got a couple of strikes against it.”

Meurer defended NPS in 2005, when BRAC commissioners visited Monterey, as they considered merging NPS with the Army’s Defense Language Institute or Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio. (President Barack Obama has threatened to propose another round of BRAC in his budget, expected to be released soon.)

Even though Meurer’s interest could be just to protect the 10,000-plus jobs NPS reportedly creates, he made the case – successfully – to BRAC that it would be killing its top brainiacs if NPS were eliminated. 

“I hope the Secretary of the Navy reaffirms the strategic plan of 2008,” Meurer says. That’s the year after Oliver was hired, becoming the second president of NPS. Until 2004, “superintendents” were assigned for up to 24 months. Oliver’s five-year appointment would’ve been the school’s longest, and as a retired naval officer, he was its first civilian leader since it was founded in 1909. 

It might be that the cultural tension between civilian and military that faculty have been adapting to for decades is just too much for the Navy to bear. “NPS, like many military colleges, has to deal with a dual culture,” according to Wisecup’s report. 

Tighe has convened working groups to drill down into each of the I.G.’s concerns, and says faculty travel is one area where there’s already been a significant crackdown. She’s acknowledged she’d like the job permanently, but last week was ordered back to the fleet. So far, the core of NPS remains untouched: “We haven’t implemented any massive institutional changes.”

But Elster, who also serves on the Foundation board, fears the mission has always been under fire. 

“The school has to sing for its supper almost every day,” he says. “I think that will continue to be the case.” Like Mauz, he considers the report to be flawed.

The Inspector General, meanwhile, has remained silent. Though Wisecup’s introduction instructs the public to call Deputy I.G. Andrea Brotherton with questions, she declined to answer the Weekly’s calls.

That silence leaves space for the insiders to wonder what it all actually means. If the report was part of a larger plan, maybe the Navy’s envisioning a different kind of education at NPS, with a scheme to rewrite the mission – or put the entire place on the chopping block.

For those paying attention to the next generation of warfare, that’s a scary thought. But the alternative is scary, too. What if the I.G. report, and the way top brass reacted by firing the top two at NPS, was a mistake? “If I were a professor and that report were submitted to me, the person would get an F,” Elster says. “It’s not a very good piece of work.”

When Work spoke briefly with reporters at NPS last November, he said, “The Inspector General is the conscience of the Navy.” 

Considering the next generation of Jedi fighters – the people who will be trained in cyber-warfare and the most sophisticated means of defending our borders – is expected to emerge from NPS, observers are left confounded. 

It might be better if, instead of laying the groundwork to axe NPS, the conscience overseeing the smartest part of the world’s strongest military simply screwed up.

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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