When Rear Adm. Gardner P. Howe III took the reins reigns at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, in summer 2014, he became the first Navy SEAL ever to head up the Navy's prestigious graduate school that's attended my military officers from every service.

A career operator, it had been almost 20 years since Howe's last stint with higher education, when he earned a master's degree in national security affairs from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1995. Howe graduated from the Naval Academy in 1984.

Now resettled in an academic setting, he told Navy Times about what he's learned and where the war college is headed, as it educates midcareer officers for strategic and operational leadership positions. going in an Aug. 12 interview. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity.

Q. What have you learned in your first year on the job?

A. When I got to the college, my initial focus was going to be on really more continuity, because it was a very, very new experience for me operating in this world of academics.

Now, after this year, having the opportunity to reflect on and watch the college in action, it’s probably less about continuity. And a piece that has come to crystallize in my head is that our challenge now is going to be to stay all the things that have made the Naval War College such a great institution over the years, but at the same time ensure that we have a deliberate — a very explicit — focus on not just marginal improvements but what we’re currently doing:, thinking very, very critically of innovative ways of executing our mission.

Q. How would you describe your role as president?

A. I would say that like most leaders at a more operational or strategic level, the primary function is to set conditions for the team here to succeed.

So really, I believe it is about the constant clarification and refinement of the vision in order to execute the mission and through multiple means, setting the conditions so that the team here can execute to meet the mission.

Q. How was your transition from the special operations world to academics?

The first year here was very very interesting. A. I could say that there was nobody more surprised to find out that I was being considered for the job here than that I was. And even more surprised when I found out I was selected.

But the feelings of surprise were quickly overcome by feelings of excitement. In my own personal and professional life, the role of education has been really, really, really important, and even as a SEAL to continue to reinforce this idea that we’re not going to train our way to success for the challenges we’re going to be facing in the future.

Tactical competency or technical expertise is not going to be sufficient. Military leaders in the future have got to be educated. They've got to have critical thinking skills, good communication skills and the ability to bring to bear those competencies in a way that is appropriate in a complex world. And the only way to get there is through a very deliberate educational process.

I'm very excited to be part of that.

Q. How does your background help with your leadership at NWC?

Here at the college, I think it's probably less about a SEAL- specific quality or attribute and really about the ability to bring to bear here at the college somewhat new, relative to the historical experience here, and maybe a more diverse set of experiences and perspectives to help us address the issues and the mission execution.

A. As I've grown a bit more senior and gained a little bit more experience, the whole notion of diversity has taken on a new meaning for me. It's clear in my mind that diversity of ideas is an absolute critical element of problem-solving in a complex environment.

If I would offer anything, I think that what I am able to bring to the college right now is a somewhat different and adding a level of diversity to this really strong team hereat the college.

Q. How do you keep the academics rigorous, so that the college is a "filter, not a pump," as the saying goes?

A. At times it is a criticism critism that is laid across PME write large is that very, very, very few people fail. And that’s the case here. There are very, very, very few failures. There are failures. I don’t have specifics for you, but there are folks who do fail to meet standards and do not complete their curriculum here.

The thing that's different, though, is that the students we have here at the Naval War College and similarly at many of the other institutions, these are incredibly self-motivated professionals that are here because they want to be here and believe that they truly appreciate the value of the education.

There’s probably several safeguards against being a "pump." The first is that our curriculum here is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. We just went through our process. That starts with about a 12-month study process that results in a report that goes to NEASC. After they have an opportunity to review all the self-assessments, they show up for an on-site visit. And then after the on-site visit, the report goes to the commission for institutions of higher education, and then the provost and I have the opportunity to go down and answer questions from that commission. In Spring. We’ve just received notice that we’ve been accredited for 10 more years. 

Q. Enlisted have never been able to attend NWC, but is that something we might see in the future, given how many are earning undergraduate degrees?

A. This is a topic of significant interest. When I have an opportunity to chat with senior enlisted personnel at the academy, it’s one that we are looking forward to pursuingpursing. I think getting back this whole idea of diversity of idea and developing thinking skills in a complex world, I believe that bringing in senior enlisted leaders to the college could assist with the educational quality that we’re delivering here.


Total students:  545

Senior class: 218

Intermediate class: 327

Student make-up: 

Navy: 40 percent

Army: 19 percent

Air Force: 10 percent

Marine Corps: 8 percent

Coast Guard: 1 percent

Civilian: 6 percent

International: 16 percent

Degrees: Master of Arts, National Security and Strategic Studies

Distance learning enrollees: 5,372