In some ways, this is unsurprising. Prior to entering the Trump administration, Wilson had been the president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. In many ways, this was simply a return to the academy.
Furthermore, Wilson is hardly the only person steeped in the military to run an academic institution. The former chancellor of the UT System was William McRaven, a retired U.S. Navy four-star admiral who was the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. Until last summer, the dean of the Fletcher School was Jim Stavridis, also a retired U.S. Navy four-star admiral who was the supreme commander of NATO. The most famous example would be Dwight Eisenhower, who was president of Columbia University after being supreme allied commander during World War II and before being elected president.
In other ways, it might be a bit surprising to some observers, for several reasons. As Politico’s Zack Stanton reported last month, Wilson was at least rumored to be the next secretary of defense (although Wilson’s fondness for NATO probably did not sit well with the Trump White House).
More generally, it might not be obvious why someone with extensive experience in the military would want to run a university. The contrasts between the two sectors seem stark. The military is a hierarchical, disciplined, top-down organization populated by an awful lot of conservatives. A university is a decentralized, chaotic, freewheeling institution populated by an awful lot of liberals. The creators of the “garbage can” theory of organizations drew their inspiration from universities, which they labeled “organized anarchies."
The cultural gap is large enough for Peter Singer to request an explanation from the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts. He tweeted: “The pipeline of Pentagon leaders to college presidents is both fascinating and under-explored given how frequently it happens, relative to small number of these positions.” So why does this happen at all?
The logic from the university side is clear. Senior Pentagon officials are presumed to excel at running large organizations with lots of arcane rules, and universities are certainly large, arcane entities. Politically, universities are consistently vulnerable to charges of being hostile to conservatism. Hiring someone from a conservative profession can counteract that pressure. I have also heard many a high-ranking university official opine that someone who can cadge billions of dollars from Congress should be able to solicit millions from wealthy alums.
As for the Pentagon officials, the attraction seems to be mutual. Wilson said that when Jim Mattis recruited her, she told him, “Sir you do know that being a college president is like the best job in America, right?” Why would retired generals and secretaries consider taking a position of academic leadership when there are fat consulting dollars to be made in the private sector?
There are a few commonalities between the two institutions that are worth remembering. Both institutions run as much on prestige and recognition as material rewards. Both institutions function on honor codes, even if they are imperfect. It is impossible to succeed as an officer in the U.S. military without embracing the importance of professional military education (PME). The higher echelons of the military take higher education seriously. Being able to transition from the Pentagon to the academy is less of a cognitive leap than outside observers might appreciate.
Nonetheless, not every former Defense Department denizen excels at running a university. Getting money from Congress when you represent the last respected bipartisan institution in the country is a wee bit different than asking opinionated donors to cough up some dough. Some former four-stars have been surprised that being the head of an academic institution does not give them the plenipotentiary powers that they might have possessed in the military. Perhaps most important, the military selects for people prepared to follow orders; the academy selects for disorganized contrarians.
There are sound reasons that universities court former military leaders to run their institutions. But that does not mean that the marriage always works.