Q&A: ADM. James Stavridis

Marjorie Malpiede / July 10, 2018

The dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University on what the world needs of our next generation of leaders

James Stavridis’ diverse life experiences have afforded him keen insights into a range of critical topics including military strategy, global security and higher ed policy. It is not surprising that his opinions are highly sought after by everyone from television audiences and sitting presidents to his students at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

The Mary Christie Foundation had the pleasure of talking with Admiral Stavridis as he finishes his last few weeks as Dean of The Fletcher School. It is clear he leaves a post he loves even as he is eager to begin what he calls the “third act” of his life. Stavridis and his wife Laura are headed to Washington DC where he will become the Senior Advisor to the Carlyle Group, one of the largest private equity companies in the world.

Taking on a world view has been Stavridis’ master work. An American who was raised for many years in Greece, Stavridis’ first act in life was a thirty-year career in the Navy topped by his post as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.

As Dean of The Fletcher School for the past five years, Stavridis has led the esteemed institution for diplomats-in-training, both internally and externally.

His accomplishments in refining the curriculum for some of the most important jobs in the world was augmented by his highly acclaimed thought leadership work.

Stavridis is a monthly columnist for Time magazine, and chief international security analyst for NBC News, roles he will continue after he leaves The Fletcher School.

In talking about the health and wellness of our future generation of leaders, the Admiral is both broad-minded and specific. He spoke of the rising mental health needs of graduate students and the unique stressors facing The Fletcher population at a time of rapid change, intense transparency and international unrest.

He also discussed the strains facing returning veterans heading to college on the post 9/11 GI Bill and how institutions, including the government, ought to do more to support those who have served.
The following is a synopsis of our conversation.

Mary Christie Quarterly: What are your thoughts on the rising prevalence of mental health issues in college students? What are you seeing at the graduate level?
ADM. James Stavridis: Our campuses of higher education are facing a challenge, veering toward a crisis, in student mental health. I say that both looking at the research on the subject and seeing the number of students that present at clinics with disorders such as anxieties, neuroses, psychosis, bipolar. There has really been an uptick and this is not just undergraduates. I’m seeing this in my population at Fletcher.

Over the five years I’ve been a dean, I would say [the number of students who require mental health intervention] has gone from 10 percent of my population to 20 percent, so it’s effectively doubled in five years. These are, on average, 27-year-old students, many of them international. We have about 45 percent international students, 55 percent from the U.S.

When I talk to the other deans here at Tufts and to leaders in higher education as I do, for example, every summer at the Aspen Institute Forum on Higher Education, it is clear that the number of times this subject comes up has also probably doubled over the same five-year period.

So I think by any measurement, from the hard statistics of students presenting with challenges, to the apocryphal evidence of number of conversations, this has gone from being a kind of a lower level challenge, something you had to be aware of, to something today that is high on my agenda.

MCQ: Why is this so important to you and to The Fletcher School?
JS. It’s crucial that leaders from this school who are going to graduate and go into mid-tier jobs in global diplomacy are stable and centered.
We cannot afford to have diplomats at our embassies who have mental health conditions and concerns that were masked over in their education at a place like The Fletcher School.

It is imperative that we address this for our population by virtue of what we’re sending them to do in the world — international diplomacy, global business, international medical activity, humanitarian operations, military operations.

We have, in my view, a special responsibility to ensure that our student body is ready, on day one, to take on these important global missions that we send them on.

MCQ: What do you think is causing this rise in mental health issues, particularly with your populations of students?
JS: I think there are three big reasons. One is the continuing acceleration of events. Students need to be rapidly processing these external events that are just exploding around them.

From the end of the Obama administration to the beginning of the Trump administration, you just feel international events are accelerating at a dizzying pace, and this is what students are focusing on.

More is happening in a news cycle, in a week, in a month, that happened in a year as recently as a decade ago.
Meanwhile, we are training our students to bring order out of the chaos of a newly international world.
And so you come here and events are moving at such speed, you have a sense of frustration and inadequacy and fear and anxiety that I’m going to be launched into this very high-speed world that I am going to contribute to and be part of. The task looks very daunting.

The second point involves transparency. This gets into the personal zone for our students, the way in which they find their lives spread out through social networks and the endless commentaries.

It becomes very difficult to place yourself in a stable, protected and centered place, when you feel that part of your obligation is to be in this conversation about the world.

You may have strong opinions about Israel and Palestine and you roll those out there and you get huge blow back whichever side of the issue you’re on.

You may be outraged by something that the Trump administration has done, or by something the Obama administration failed to do, and in both cases, you are caught in huge blow back.

Those conversations, and the way students are thrust into them in a very public way, I think contributes to a lot of the anxieties they develop.

I’ll add a third, very prosaic piece, and that is cost. Am I getting value out of this very expensive education? Where am I going to find the money to do this?

It’s very scary for someone in their late twenties who is looking at years of debt, particularly for international students, living in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language.

There’s an enormous package of very pragmatic stresses that are put on them.

MCQ: Would you say your international students are also stressed by the Trump administration’s immigration policies?
JS: Absolutely. Let me give you a practical example. I’ve had so many of my international students say that when they land at Logan airport, their heart rate goes up, their anxiety goes sky high.

These are people who are here on absolutely rock solid student visas but they say just the sight of uniforms at the airport scares them.

We have had a couple of students who were taken to rooms and given hard interrogations. They were from countries that are not favored by the United States but the irony is, we want those students here.

That’s exactly how we build the bridges that, in the end, will defuse the kinds of international crises we are experiencing.

MCQ: How are you addressing all of this at The Fletcher School?
JS: The first thing we do is identify those who are having problems.
Second is to talk broadly about it. When we bring in all the students for indoctrination, we have mental health professionals come and communicate to the students that it’s okay to not be okay.

Then there are the services we provide. We have a very vibrant, strong university in that department here at Tufts so we’re very fortunate. We have clinics and counselors right in the center of this campus, and a very strong collection of mental health care professionals who are available to work with these students.

Then we monitor and loop back. When we have identified someone who is in a challenged situation, we want to continue to interact with them, and that goes all the way to me.

I am well-briefed on students that are experiencing these kinds of challenges. We check in on people, we follow up with them frequently.

At the dark end of the spectrum, if we have someone who is evincing a sense that they might harm themselves, which of course is a nightmare we face constantly, we need to do a serious intervention.

MCQ: Is there something about the work itself you do here at The Fletcher School that becomes a comfort to your students?
JS. Yes. In the midst of the chaos, students are working side by side with people from very different backgrounds on critical issues that they are working through.

These exercises give our students comfort that there are solutions to conflicts and there is great hope that they can bring improvement to the world.

MCQ: You spent 32 years in the military and you have a number of servicemen and women attend The Fletcher School each year. What are your views on what they’re going through and how schools can better support them?
JS: I think for our veterans here at The Fletcher School, I’d say, 80 percent of them are at the top of the class, in terms of their stability and their health. But the 20 percent that are challenged, I would argue are even more challenged than the comparatives in the broader population.

Our suicide rates in the military are higher than the comparative age demographic so we really need to be checking in with this percentage regularly. We have specific veteran support events here at The Fletcher School that I personally am involved in, largely because of my own background.

Once a quarter, I get together with all the veterans, and the active duty military who are attending here, which is typically 10 to 15 percent of our population, so that’s 30 to 45 people.

In terms of veteran students in general, these are young men and women who have volunteered to serve their country and have gone into very demanding environments, both in terms of the operations they are performing as well as what is expected of them.

They have to maintain physical fitness, they have to wear a uniform, they have to obey orders, they don’t lie, they don’t cheat, they don’t steal. It’s a very rigorous moral code that they are willing to place themselves under and limit their own liberties and personal freedoms in doing so.

As our young men and women come out of this military environment and suddenly are in the civilian world, there is much more, shall we say, moral ambiguity.

No one is going to tell them what to wear on Tuesday, no-one is going to check up on them the way the military chain of command looks out for our young soldiers and sailors. That can be very intimidating and very concerning.
Then when you couple it for that percentage of the population that has been in combat, it is even more challenging. In that combat group you have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you have Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) from explosives.

It’s a very rich mix of challenges that I think add another degree of complexity to their wellbeing that is beyond that of the day-to-day student.

They need a lot of support and it is an opportunity for higher education to step up in this area and provide a wellness bridge for these students who have served their country.

I also think the government has a role that goes beyond just the VA. It is too important and too challenging for higher ed to do alone.

MCQ: What are your views about choosing to go into the military before going to college?
JS. First of all, this whole notion that going to a competitive 4-year college is your only choice after high school is really ridiculous and, I believe, contributes to the problems we’ve been talking about.
I think enlisting in the military is a very powerful choice for many young men and women. There are also community college programs that are highly underused in this country. People who come to very expensive institutions are, for their first two years, taking many basic courses.

They’re studying Spanish, they’re taking basic psychology, they’re taking calculus. They could be taking those courses at a community college at a fraction of the cost. And in a community college there are solid apprenticeship-type programs where people are learning real skills.

The problem is, and it’s the same problem with people enlisting in the military, we have a snobbish society. There’s no other word for it.

If you said, ‘My daughter’s going to go into the Navy as opposed to going to college,’ too many people would think ‘What’s wrong with her?’ Or ‘My son is going to community college for two years.’ The response would be ‘Hmm, I wonder if they can’t pay for college?’

That’s absolutely wrong. We’ve got a national education project ahead of us in terms of status.