Date November 2, 2022
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In its second year, Military Fellows program continues to bridge the civilian-military divide

The Watson Institute’s expanding Military Fellows program brings U.S. and international defense professionals to Brown for a year of courses, seminars and problem-solving conversations with policymakers and researchers.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As a lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force, Theodore “Doc” Shanks has spent years readying people and equipment for airlifts, medical evacuations and humanitarian responses. 

Shanks never doubted that his work made a positive impact in the world. Still, he longed to effect even more change by helping to address his employer’s large carbon footprint: According to Brown University’s Costs of War project, the U.S. Department of Defense is the world’s single largest institutional emitter of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases.

It was time, Shanks decided, to go back to school.

“The DOD takes the education and broadening of their members, and especially their leaders, very seriously,” Shanks said. “Despite this, there are precious few chances to meaningfully engage with academic communities from outside the defense sphere.” 

One of those precious few is the Military Fellows program, housed at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Established in 2019 with funding from a Carnegie Corporation grant, the fellows program welcomes a handful of U.S. and international military officers to College Hill each year. Throughout the fall and spring semesters, the fellows audit graduate-level courses on international and public affairs topics, engage in security-related seminars, and participate in a security-focused working group with faculty, students and policy practitioners. Some also serve as guest lecturers for courses at the Watson Institute.

As a member of the inaugural cohort of fellows, Shanks spent the 2021-22 year on campus, teaching, guest lecturing and taking part in organized and spur-of-the-moment conversations that he said made him a better leader, strategist, instructor and student. He served as a fellow alongside Hongkyu Kim, a Republic of Korea Army engineer officer.

“The Military Fellows program gives professional military officers like me the ability to not only share their knowledge and experience — via teaching, guest lecturing and engagements — but to also learn from the great minds at Brown,” Shanks said. “It fosters dialogue and engagement between the academic community and their defense and policy counterparts. Not only is this vital for sharing experience and perspectives, but it positively benefits both the Military Fellows and Brown faculty, students and staff.”

“ By having intelligent and respectful scholars engage with one another in the university setting, we can more effectively work together when needed to help solve some of humanity's most challenging problems. ”

Dave Polatty Director, Military Fellows program

Dave Polatty, the program’s director and a senior fellow at the Watson Institute, said the cohort of fellows continues to grow each year — starting with two last year, expanding to four for the 2022-23 academic year, and potentially ballooning to six in Fall 2023. That’s an exciting development, because an increase in fellows means a greater diversity of perspectives and expertise on campus.

It’s also reflective of Brown’s growing emphasis in recent years on creating a welcoming academic home for students and scholars affiliated with the military — from renewed ROTC ties, to an increasing number of military veterans enrolled as students (and more resources to support them), to visitors in initiatives like the Military Fellows program.

“Whether it is their engagement in the classroom, lunchtime lectures, research meetings or simply meeting people around campus, my sincere hope is that the fellows’ presence helps improve everyone’s understanding of civil-military relations challenges that exist here in the U.S. and around the world,” Polatty said. “By having intelligent and respectful scholars engage with one another in the university setting, we can more effectively work together when needed to help solve some of humanity's most challenging problems.”

New cohort, new perspectives

Following in Shanks’ and Kim’s footsteps in the 2022-23 academic year are two members of the U.S. Marine Corps, one member of the U.S. Air Force and one member of the Korean army.

Maj. Trevor Tingle, a CH-53E helicopter pilot who has been in the Marine Corps for 15 years, was on a ship in the South Pacific when he learned he was accepted into this year’s cohort. He said he’s looking forward to sharing his experiences with the Brown community, taking courses — in particular, Chinese Foreign Policy and Security, Governance and Development in Africa — and bringing all that he learns back to his workplace. 

“By sharing what I learn with the Marine Corps,” Tingle said, “I hope to provide a perspective that they’ve never seen before, and that will make us better.”

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jonathan Bott shares that approach to the program. An F-15E Strike Eagle weapon systems officer, Bott has also served as commander of a fighter squadron and, in 2021, as chief of staff for Operation Allies Welcome, the federal government’s effort to support vulnerable Afghans as they resettled in the U.S. after being evacuated from their home country. In that role, he was responsible for setting up a camp in New Mexico in just 72 hours — an experience, he said, that connects well with the work of the Watson Institute’s Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies.

“I'm here to not only learn myself, but also try to provide a perspective to make discussions richer,” he said. “And I'll do that in any realm possible, whether it be over coffee or in a classroom.”

Maj. Jake Lunsford, a U.S. Marine for the past 18 years, also believes that the military and academic communities have much to learn from each other. 

“This is an opportunity for members of the military, who spend their time looking outward at the world, to look inward — not at themselves but at their country — and to see the struggles in American society and where they fit into that,” Lunsford said.

Major Heeshik Yang said that he has dreamed of coming to Brown for a year, when he first read about the Watson Institute on a Republic of Korea Army e-bulletin board. He plans to join Tingle in the institute’s Chinese Foreign Policy course.

“Most people will agree that the U.S. and China have great influence in the global security situation,” Yang said. “I have had many opportunities to study U.S. foreign policy, but relatively few opportunities to experience Chinese foreign policy. I would like to study Chinese foreign policy in order to establish a reasonable and future-oriented security strategy for the Republic of Korea.”

Yang’s aspirations are high, but so were Shanks’ — and he wasn’t disappointed. After an enlightening academic year at Brown, where he completed a research project on the DOD’s role in the future of global climate change, Shanks returned to the Air Force newly committed to reducing its fossil fuel use. In addition to overseeing mobility training and readiness, he’s engaging in climate security work with the Secretary of Defense’s climate office. He hopes to transfer to the Air Force’s climate action team in the next year.

It’s all thanks, Shanks said, to his experience the Watson Institute.

“Not only did Watson support my efforts at every turn, but it also offered unparalleled access, partnerships and collaboration with world-class teams like the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies, the Climate Solutions Lab and the Costs of War project,” he said. “My research — now just one voice in a growing chorus of climate security proponents — is currently helping efforts to reduce the DOD’s sizable contribution to global climate change.” 

Even after his fellowship ended, Shanks has stayed engaged with the University community through in-person and virtual outreach events, and he said he’ll probably do so for years to come. He returned to Brown in October 2022, for example, to discuss his educational experience and dispense career advice in an informal chat with undergraduates in the Air Force ROTC program. After hearing his remarks, he reasoned, some of those young students could become future Military Fellows.

“My fellowship was an experience I won’t soon forget — it was one of the most powerful years of my career,” Shanks said. “As a lecturer, researcher and auditor, I learned more from the Brown community than I thought possible.”

Editor’s note: This story was adapted from an article that originally appeared on the Watson Institute’s website.