When people consider the role of civilian faculty at military service academies, they typically focus on the influence that civilian faculty have on their respective institutions. My experience shows that the influence can also go in the other direction.
I am a professor and chair of the Psychology Department at SUNY Cortland. I moved into this position after being a civilian professor in the Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department at the United States Air Force Academy for 21 years.
Recently, I had a department member who needed to take temporary custody of her nephew due to a military deployment. The department member was considering taking leave during the upcoming semester so she could properly manage this unexpected situation.
This type of change would create considerable challenges. I would need to find instructors to cover courses on short notice. Other department members would have to take on more committee work. I could sense the temptation to remind her subtly, or not so subtly, about the department headaches that would occur if she decided to take leave.
But my experience as a civilian professor at the Air Force Academy gave me a different perspective. Specifically, I had a lot of experience watching coworkers deploy. It was easy for me to understand that somewhere there was a military professional and a spouse who had plenty to worry about already. I also understood that saying “Thanks for your service” is nice and all, but genuine sympathy about the contemporary challenges of military service matters, too.
I’d like to think that I would have been supportive anyway. I am confident that I am a kind person who tries to support my coworkers while also being equitable. Still, there is no way I would have understood this situation as appreciably as I did without my experience at the AFA.
I took the issue to my dean. Thankfully, he supported a variety of options. In the end, the faculty member opted for one that did not require her to take leave. Whew. I was ready to really go to bat for the faculty member, but I didn’t need to.
In closing, I just want to share my gratitude for being more knowledgeable about the military and what it means to serve in it. I’m a different kind of civilian professor because of my experience at the United States Air Force Academy. That obviously wasn’t the intent of civilian integration, but it is a nice outcome nevertheless.
Craig A. Foster is professor and chair of the Psychology Department at SUNY Cortland. His research interests include scientific reasoning and the development of pseudoscientific beliefs.
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