Op-ed: Crisis at Tufts University and The Fletcher School: Lessons learned from the U.S. Marine Corps

When entering the Tufts campus from College Avenue along the Memorial Steps, it is easy to recognize the strong bond the university has with the U.S. Military. The Fletcher School’s International Security Studies program has multiple faculty members who have contributed a large part of their career to not just studying but advising the military on their crisis management and counterinsurgency operations. Multiple active-duty service members join Fletcher each year as part of the Military Fellows program. Additionally, The Fletcher School has hosted Boston native, Fletcher alumnus and retired Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford (F’92), the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for numerous engagements. Thus, it is fitting that we can examine a recent leadership crisis in the Marine Corps, how it was resolved and how it will likely forecast the process Tufts’ leadership will take in leading The Fletcher School out of its current crisis.

Maj. Gen. Stephen Neary took command of U.S. Marine Corps Forces in Europe and Africa in July. Shortly after taking command, he was walking past a group of young Marines conducting physical training and listening to music that incorporated the racial slur commonly referred to as the “n-word.” Neary proceeded to counsel the Marines on the inappropriateness of the word; however, during his counseling, he did not replace the word with a pronoun or use the term “n-word.” He used the actual word, according to a Marine present at the scene. At that moment, Marine Corps Forces in Europe and Africa suffered what one could call an open, bleeding wound. The Marines were shocked and upset that this word with such a history of hate and violence could come out the mouth of a white general officer, regardless of context. 

Neary quickly found his command to be in crisis and he entered crisis management mode. He held meetings with small unit leaders to explain his context and the inappropriateness of the word, but the wound did not heal. The bleeding slowed and opposition quieted, but then infection set in. Those most hurt simply could not accept him as their leader and wanted accountability. 

They engaged alternate lines of communication through media and top-level Marine Corps channels to heal the infected command. Ultimately, in October, the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. David Berger, recalled Neary to the Pentagon and, without delay, relieved him of command for the loss of trust and confidence. Neary’s stellar record was irrelevant. His passion, superior intellect, vision and inspiring engagement with European allies were moot. Ultimately, Berger must have realized that he had no other choice. Neary would never be able to regain the full trust and confidence of all those under his command. The only way to stop the infection at the Marine Corps Forces in Europe and Africa from spreading was to remove its source. 

Upon Neary’s removal, an interim commander was put in command. Less than three weeks later, Maj. Gen. Michael Langley assumed permanent command and released a command climate survey to assist in identifying and remedying any other potential lingering wounds, and the troops began to heal. This was an example of Marine Corps leadership management 101.

Rachel Kyte (F’02) took over as dean of The Fletcher School in October 2019. On Nov. 16, under Kyte’s leadership and guidance, The Fletcher school released a complete rebrand. The school would have a new name, “Fletcher,” and a new slogan. It would also ditch the orange Fletcher flag and now be referred to as a school of global affairs, rather than international affairs. Along with this came a revision of degree offerings.

This event was the catalyst of the current crisis at The Fletcher School. Hundreds of negative social media responses have circulated across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Reddit in public protest for the rest of the world to see. At least three petitions are circulating with over 1,300 combined signatures. It seems as if the rebrand is nearly universally hated, by both students and alumni. The crisis is a firestorm that is beginning to reveal an even deeper wound than originally imagined. One Reddit user claiming to be a staff member wrote that to their disappointment, the staff was not consulted during the planning and designing phase of the rebrand. The user further alleges that when given a presentation on the rebrand just before launch, the staff provided constructive criticism and feedback that seemed not to be incorporated. 

One petition argues that there has been an abnormally high amount of staff and faculty turnover within the school since Kyte’s arrival. It additionally argues there was a “lack of transparent, consistent communication” where town hall events for students “are more akin to ‘listening sessions.’” More recently, alumna Aziza Mohammed (F’12), the writer of another respectfully written petition, revealed that after she shared the petition on LinkedIn, a member of the Fletcher Board of Advisors replied, accusing her of “behaving like a terrorist” and demanding the post be taken down. This particular board member, Liz Musch, was brought onto the board this year during Kyte’s tenure.

The Fletcher School is in crisis management mode. Kyte as well as a small handful of associate deans and directors have personally reached out to some of the more vocal opponents to the rebrand in an attempt to slow the bleeding. On Nov. 30, Kyte announced that due to feedback, the school would revert to the previous branding. However, the school’s Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn pages all still refer to “Fletcher, The Graduate School of Global Affairs at Tufts University,” and the media posts of the failed rebrand have yet to be removed. Additionally, the school’s website still references “Fletcher” and “global affairs.”

As a school that teaches crisis management, it may have short term success with its decision to revert some of the changes; however, using the Marine Corps Forces in Europe and Africa as an example, the wound will not heal and infection at The Fletcher School will set in. Dissatisfaction will simmer. Recommendations to attend the school will slow and donors will spend their money elsewhere. Top competitors such as Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service will continue to gain market share at The Fletcher School’s expense. Enrollment for the fall 2021 semester has already begun. Understandably, prospective students will not want to apply to a school experiencing a public crisis. 

It is because of this that I believe within the next few weeks, Tufts’ leadership will reach the same conclusion that Berger reached — that the source of the infection must be removed. I believe this because there is not another choice if The Fletcher School is to heal. The more difficult short-term decision will be who to select as interim dean if Tufts’ leadership asks Kyte to step down, or if she decides to resign. Who can facilitate healing and properly lead and manage the school while giving Tufts adequate time to find a permanent replacement? I wish Tufts’ leadership the best in selecting the right person to help get The Fletcher School back on track. As for who should be the new permanent dean, maybe there is still more we can learn from the Marine Corps. After all, our beloved Fletcher School alumnus Dunford is now retired and likely available.

Timothy Otten is a Fletcher alumnus of the Class of 2020. Timothy can be reached at [email protected]