Colonel Joseph Felter’s all-American good looks and chiseled jaw practically make him a walking military recruitment poster. But this title belies his full personality; in addition to his extensive military experience, he holds a PhD.
After a twenty-four year career as a Special Forces and foreign area officer, Felter is joining the Center for International Security and Cooperation as a Senior Research Scholar.
Felter’s most recent assignment was leading the Counterinsurgency Advisory Assistance Team (CAAT) in Afghanistan. This unit, created by General Stanley A. McChrystal (Ret.), was designed to be “an organization that could go around the battlefield, pick up observations, and report directly back to [McChrystal] unfiltered through layers of command and also to communicate his guidance and orders directly to the field.”
As head of the unit, Felter described his role as being a “directed telescope” for the commanding generals in Afghanistan, first reporting directly to McChrystal, and then to his successor as Commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, General David H. Petraeus (Ret.). Felter had free reign to travel anywhere in Afghanistan to see what progress was being made and to ensure that orders were being properly executed by the commanders on the ground.
On his two renowned bosses, Felter said, “both of them [were] just extraordinary officers, the finest leaders you could hope to work for…an inspiration.”
But Felter does not reserve his praise only for his superiors; he pointed out that when he served at the end of the Cold War, “[the conflict] wasn’t easy, but it was simple.”
He contrasted this with the experience that current officers have in the more ambiguous post-9/11 world: “We’ve created a generation of leaders in the military that have tremendous experience in this complex threat environment…I know [it] sounds kind of ‘ra-ra’ but, however things end up in Afghanistan, there’s been an incredible performance by so many of our young leaders out there.”
Though he is transitioning an academic career, Felter’s interest is anything but abstract: “We have great warfighters out there but we need to give them better policy, and this is a great opportunity to tak[e] those tactical insights that my unit was getting from around Afghanistan and communicat[e] them in a strategic context.”
Towards this end, Felter will be working on the Empirical Studies of Conflict (ESOC) project, which he co-directs with former PhD classmate Jacob Shapiro of Princeton University. The goal of the project is to create a “reservoir of quality data that scholars around the world can tap into” on conflicts in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Colombia.
The project will work to make accessible data that had been out of the reach of scholars for a variety of reasons, including classification issues and danger in collecting it. The project will allow for selectively crowdsourcing the previously limited effort to study conflict, specifically insurgencies.
Felter’s respect for the rigor of political science methodology comes through in his explanation of the project’s underlying premise, the idea that, in his words, “if you provide quality data to scholars they can really do some great work with it.”
Felter talked frequently about the importance of basing conclusion on more than a “gut feeling,” arguing that “we owe it to ourselves to use a really rigorous methodology when developing policy of huge consequence.”
If the ESOC project is Felter’s research initiative, then Faculty College is his teaching project.
Faculty College, an effort to fundamentally rethink how teaching is done at Stanford, consists of six teams of faculty designing new multidisciplinary, thematically-oriented courses. Felter will work with political science professor Scott Sagan, philosophy professor Debra Satz, senior Law School lecturer Allen Weiner, and School of Medicine professor Paul Wise on the Ethics and War project.
Even during his military career, Felter was exposed to academia, having taught at West Point, his alma mater, and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, as well as directing the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He regards teaching as “the essence of the university.”
Felter co-taught the Face of Battle Sophomore College class this year with professor Scott Sagan, and said he is thinking about developing some courses in the future, potentially including a course on counterinsurgency next year.
One reason Felter seems so excited about teaching at Stanford is the absence of a strong sense of hierarchy between the students and the faculty. Asked about his favorite aspect of Stanford, Felter cites the atmosphere in which you can see “your Nobel Prize-winning professor…getting off his bicycle in shorts talking to a student who pulls up on a skateboard.”
Felter also mentions the desire to take his three boys of seven, nine, and eleven years to some Stanford football games, which he himself enjoys.
For now, Felter seems content with his ongoing research and teaching commitments, writing a book based on his dissertation, and having time to spend at home with his family after many years spent overseas. However, he does retain a passion for public service, noting that “many Stanford faculty members have contributed a lot from academia but then taken that expertise and gone to Washington to make a difference.”
With his distinguished military record and burgeoning academic credentials, it is not hard to imagine Felter becoming one of those faculty members.