The Treaty of Chapel Hill

Sometimes, things are so obvious you wonder why they didn’t happen a long time before. This seems to be the case with the new Memorandum of Agreement between the University of North Carolina system and the North Carolina-based U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC). These two organizations stand to benefit from each other in so many ways, some that will be immediate and readily apparent and some that will occur unnoticed over time.

The agreement (MOA) was signed by UNC system president Erskine Bowles and the commander of the special forces, Lieutenant General John F. Mulholland at the November meeting of the UNC Board of Governors on Thursday. USASOC consists of such highly trained, specialized units such as the Army Rangers and the Psychological Operations Group. They are headquartered at Fort Bragg near Fayetteville, North Carolina.

According to Mulholland, it is likely the first agreement of its kind between a segment of the U.S. military and a state university system.

The MOA essentially formalizes and extends a relationship of cooperation that has already existed for a long time, according to UNC vice president for communications Joni Worthington. Four different UNC schools offer degree programs on military bases, and soldiers can get online degrees from other schools in the system.

The potential benefits of the further collaboration are vast and important. For instance, USASOC spokesman Sgt. First Class Eric Hendrix cited one area where both sides can mutually benefit—the transfer of knowledge between the military’s battlefield medics (medical technicians specializing in traumatic injuries) and the emergency doctors at UNC Hospital’s trauma center. While UNC is on the cutting edge of the latest medical research, the urgency of battlefield surgery has produced a tremendous number of medical advances throughout the centuries: the use of anesthesia, the transportation of blood, pre-operation preparations, and many more. Such cooperation between the two spheres of emergency medical practice can only be positive.

One of the first steps will be to have medic instructors undertake a residency program at the UNC-Chapel Hill hospital. Bowles also called for the creation of a fast-track process for retiring military medics to receive certification and training to enter North Carolina’s civilian health care workforce, where there is a shortage in some areas.

There is already a lot of exchange between Kenan-Flagler School of Business at Chapel Hill and the USASOC, according to Bowles. Specific subjects studied by military personnel include organizational studies, supply chain management, leadership, and negotiations.

The process of negotiation is pretty much the same for executives and combat officers, Mulholland added at a press conference after signing the agreement. He said that the skills learned in executive training are invaluable for “captains…when they’re negotiating with a tribal leader or a foreign minister overseas, which happens pretty routinely.”

Furthermore, he added that the transfer of knowledge works both ways: “In turn, those experiences that our men and women bring back, I am absolutely convinced, will better inform [academics] in how they approach real-world dilemmas.”

Other subjects likely to see lots of exchange include the study of foreign languages and cultures, engineering, computer science, communications, and behavioral science.

Research and development is another area where the “expertise” of the two systems “dovetail” (as described by Worthington). The military will contract with UNC engineers and scientists to innovate in response to battlefield needs. As Hendrix explained before the ceremonial signing, soldiers in the field often discover an imperative need for new technical solutions that can’t wait for ordinary R & D processes to unfold.

Yet, before popping the champagne to celebrate the agreement, it must be remembered that the MOA also represents the confluence of two giant government bureaucracies, one known for its $640 toilet seats (in 1980s dollars!), and the other known for its six-figure tenured sinecures. Vigilance will be required to assure that these organizations don’t, as bureaucracies are wont to do, turn the research component of the agreement into an entanglement of perpetually wasteful projects and other assorted boondoggles. This is easier said than done.

While the agreement does not yet have safeguards against such waste, Worthington said that the “rationale for creating the MOA” is to “explore and examine the what-ifs” so that procedures can be developed to address these problems. As the first agreement of its kind, it is still to be considered an experiment.

And it is certainly a huge improvement over the relationship between the military and other higher education centers, where ROTC centers and military research projects are greeted with animosity from radical faculty and student groups. Bowles brought up a very interesting idea: that the two organizations, with their two very different mindsets, could influence each other’s cultures.

While Bowles focused on the fact that not only are soldiers “bright and disciplined,” but “they have a whole different set of experiences than other students do. What you want as a professor or as a manager of any kind of organization is diversity of input, and we’ll learn as much as they do.”

Taking this idea one step further, perhaps the increased presence of the military in academia could also serve as a counterweight to the academy’s tendency to tilt too far to the left.

The military often stands apart from civil society—its population is clustered around a few bases and its members hold a belief system that is often at odds with the mainstream. The very same thing can be said about academia. The beliefs and values of academics, however, tend to be the polar opposite to those held by men and women in uniform.

The men and women in the military tend not to be ignorant “grunts” who enlisted because they had no other options in life, but instead are members of a fairly elite group (particularly the USASOC) who have thought long and hard about their commitment to their country. They are highly patriotic and lovers of freedom; many are well read, deeply spiritual, or technically proficient. Some academics, on the other hand, tend to regard the military and even the nation itself as racist, imperialist aggressors and also prefer to organize society along collective lines. Their attitudes can serve as a detriment to intellectual discourse and to the nation.

But the university presence of people willing to put their lives on the line for this nation might increase the numbers willing to defend the country against intellectual attacks in the classroom. In fact, this experiment might be a bellwether for reintroducing traditional military ideals back into civilian life instead of isolating them in a few base communities. After all, we were founded as a nation of citizen soldiers. (Let us hope that the military guards itself against anti-American beliefs seeping in from its new partners.)

One thing that makes North Carolina such fertile ground for this agreement is the large military presence in the state. Bowles noted that over 400,000 jobs in the state are directly tied to the military in one way or another. However, a state should always be cautious about too much dependence on the military for economic reasons. While the recent Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission benefited North Carolina by shifting operations here from other states, in the future it could be the other way around.

And great caution should be taken when crafting oversight procedures for USASOC-UNC research contracts. But as far as the general spirit of the agreement goes, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”