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The History of Marine Corps University

Marine Corps University (MCU) was founded on 1 August 1989 by order of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Alfred M. Gray.  Although the University is a relatively new organization, its conceptual roots trace back to World War I and the birth of the modern Marine Corps.  General Gray’s decision to establish MCU was a logical extension of the historical legacy of many famous Marine leaders who valued the importance of education, as well as a natural extension of the contemporary shift of the Corps’ warfighting doctrine to one of “maneuver warfare,” with its concomitant demand for leaders who can think critically and act decisively in the face of ambiguity, fog, friction, and chance.

The experiences of the First World War demonstrated to Major General John A. Lejeune the need to properly educate Marines of all ranks in the art and science of war.  As the roles and missions of the Corps began to expand, and based on the hard-won lessons of combat operations in France, General Lejeune insisted that adequate time be allotted for the study of weapons and their proper tactical employment.  Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler, realizing the importance of military education for the core of professional officers, later built upon General Lejeune’s concepts by developing two additional courses of instruction.  The first, called the Field Officers School, welcomed its inaugural class in October 1920.  The second, the Company Grade Officers School, convened its first class in July 1921.  These two courses, along with the basic Marine Corps Officer Training School, soon renamed The Basic School, formed the foundation for what General Lejeune termed “Marine Corps Schools.”  It was this beginning that formed the basis of the Marine Corps University that exists today.

During the interwar period, visionaries such as Major Earl “Pete” Hancock Ellis and Colonel Robert H. Dunlap, whose names now grace Marine Corps University buildings, foresaw the need for the study and development of amphibious warfare.  In the late 1920s, comprehensive instruction in amphibious operations was developed and implemented in anticipation of the demanding requirements of this new mission.  To increase the student base of the expanding Marine Corps Schools, correspondence courses were also established at this time to parallel the resident courses. 

Beginning in 1930, Brigadier General James C. Breckinridge led a comprehensive redesign of the entire curriculum of all Marine Corps Schools, emphasizing amphibious warfare and close air support.  Breckinridge required his officers to not only become specialists in this new “Marine Corps Science,” he also demanded they become skilled instructors.  He formed special groups from selected Field Officers School graduates and students to work on amphibious doctrine and requirements.  In fact, General Breckinridge temporarily discontinued Field Officers School classes so that the staff and students could devote their full attention to developing the new doctrine. 

As a reflection of the importance of this new mission, the Marine Corps re-designated the Junior Course for company grade officers and the Senior Course for field grade officers as “Amphibious Warfare” courses.  The critical thinking, research, and doctrinal innovations produced by the staff and students of these programs contributed directly to the dramatic amphibious successes during World War II.  Given the incredible manpower demands of that conflict, both Amphibious Warfare Courses suspended classes for the duration; however, in 1943, an operationally oriented three month “Command and Staff Course” opened at Quantico based on the need for school-trained, field grade officers with commensurate skills to serve in the Pacific Theater. 

In 1946, the Marine Corps reestablished a three-tiered, professional military education system and incorporated lessons learned from World War II and emerging concepts related to warfare in the atomic age into the curricula of the Amphibious Warfare Senior and Junior Courses.  In the 1950s, the curricula of both schools changed again, incorporating the tenets of vertical envelopment and the challenges of employing helicopters in the conduct of amphibious operations. 

On 1 August 1964, the Amphibious Warfare Senior Course was re-designated as the Command and Staff College (CSC).  At the same time, the Amphibious Warfare Junior Course became the Amphibious Warfare School (AWS).  Amphibious operations remained the theme in both courses throughout the 1970s.  On 16 February 1971, the Marine Corps convened the first course of the Staff Noncommissioned Officer Academy at Quantico, Virginia.  In 1981, the Corps deepened its commitment to enlisted professional military education, establishing the Noncommissioned Officer Basic Course at 18 sites and a “Senior Course” for Staff Sergeants at Quantico, Virginia.  The following year, an “Advanced Course” for First Sergeants and Master Sergeants was implemented at Quantico, Virginia.

The late 1980s once again brought significant change to the Marine Corps professional military education system.  These changes were precipitated by the introduction of maneuver warfare as an operational philosophy, as codified by the publication of FMFM-1 Warfighting on 6 March 1989.  Also in 1989, as an extension of the need to modernize the Marine Corps professional military education system to accommodate the demands of maneuver warfare, General Gray ordered the consolidation of five independent Marine Corps schools into a single Marine Corps University.

Throughout the 1990s, MCU continued to evolve to ensure that its curricula remained relevant and responsive to the needs of the Marine Corps.  In 1990, MCU established an “Art of War Studies Program” for senior officers and, one year later, this program evolved into the Marine Corps War College (MCWAR), thus establishing a formal venue within the Marine Corps for senior-level officer professional military education.  Also in 1990, the enlisted Advanced Course became a course for Gunnery Sergeants.  Other new programs and courses established during this period included: a Commanders’ Course for all Lieutenant Colonels and Colonels slated for command (1993); annual E-8 Seminars and E-9 Symposiums (1994); a Logistics Instruction Branch (1995); and a First Sergeants course (1997).  The year 1997 also marked the creation of the College of Continuing Education, which integrated all officer and enlisted distance education programs under a single entity. 

In 1999, MCU marked a major milestone in the maturation of its educational programs as the University was accredited by the prestigious Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) to award a master’s degree at the Command and Staff College.  This was followed shortly thereafter by accreditation of the master’s degrees of both the Marine Corps War College (2001) and the Schools of Advanced Warfighting (2003). 

The early 2000s saw a number of organizational changes that impacted MCU.  Most significantly, the Commandant established Training and Education Command (TECOM) in 2000, and designated the CG TECOM as the higher headquarters for MCU.  At the same time, the Commandant also designated the President, MCU as the Commanding General, Education Command (EDCOM).  These changes resulted in a realignment of subordinate elements within the broader TECOM enterprise – most significantly Officer Candidates School, The Basic School, and the College of Continuing Education (renamed the College of Distance Education and Training (CDET)).     

In 2002, the Amphibious Warfare School and the Command and Control Systems Course merged to become the Expeditionary Warfare School (EWS).  In 2003, the Logistics Instruction Branch was re-designated the School of MAGTF Logistics (SOML) and subsequently transferred to Training Command.  The year 2003 also saw the establishment of the Senior Leader Development Program (SLDP) to manage General Officer education.  The SLDP evolved to become the Executive Education Program (EEP) under the auspices of a new entity at MCU – the Lejeune Leadership Institute (LLI) – which is responsible for the development of leadership programs across the Marine Corps.

In 2005, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools reaffirmed the regional accreditation of MCU’s three graduate degrees.  This was followed in 2010 by the successful submission of the University’s Fifth Year Interim Report to the Commission.  MCU’s ability to meet the rigorous requirements of these reviews attested to the continued excellence of these programs and to the credibility of the academic programs and processes employed by the University.

On 10 November 2006, the National Museum of the Marine Corps (NMMC) opened at its current location in Triangle, Virginia near MCB Quantico.  The NMMC – which falls under Education Command – replaced both the Marine Corps Historical Center in the Washington Navy Yard and the Marine Corps Air-Ground Museum in Quantico, Virginia.

In 2010, the President, MCU established the MAGTF Instructional Group (MIG) to better support enlisted PME programs through the Senior Enlisted PME Course and to fill a void in formal education between top-level school and general officer professional military education requirements, through the establishment of the Strategy & Policy Course. 

In 2012, the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL), which creates and executes language, region, and culture learning programs for all Marines, became part of MCU.  In 2013, CDET returned to MCU, reflecting the continuing efforts of the Marine Corps to seamlessly integrate resident and non-resident professional military education and to leverage technology to better serve the educational needs of all Marines.

In October 2015, the Marine Corps Institute (MCI) was disestablished and its mission and functions were assumed by CDET.  Finally, in December 2015 the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools once again reaffirmed the regional accreditation of MCU’s three graduate degrees.

Recent changes at MCU include the establishment of the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity, or the “Krulak Center” for short, and the re-designation of the Enlisted Professional Military Education (EPME) directorate as the College of Enlisted Military Education (CEME).

From the hard-won lessons of the First World War emerged a tradition of study and innovation that remains strong today and continues to serve the Marine Corps and the nation as a whole.  With an eye toward the enduring nature of war, the Marine Corps has and will always acknowledge the role of the individual Marine as the most important weapon system in our arsenal.  To this end, the Corps continues to emphasize the critical role of professional military education in developing and maintaining a professional cadre of Marine leaders that are resilient, adaptive, innovative, and imbued with the creativity and moral values required to make sound tactical and ethical decisions.  General Al Gray, 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps, created MCU in 1989 to provide unity of effort to how we educate current and future leaders.  General Gray understood that, while training prepares Marines for the expected, education prepares them for the unexpected.  Consequently, the focus of professional military education should be to educate leaders regarding how to think, not what to think. 

The leadership of MCU remains grounded in General Gray’s original intent and vision, while at the same time working to identify and implement the educational advancements necessary to meet the demands of the future operating environment. The University seeks to enhance the intellectual capacity of the Corps by arming future leaders with the military judgment, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving skills necessary to out-think, as well as out-fight, their opponents.  All MCU colleges and schools are adapting their curricula and teaching methodologies to reflect the tenets of the Marine Operating Concept, to include increased emphasis on reinvigorating maneuver warfare, as well as integrating operations in the information environment and naval integration into coursework and exercises.  Particular emphasis is being placed on modernizing our enlisted education programs to ensure that graduates are prepared to assume additional leadership responsibility in distributed operations against multi-domain threats.