Published July 12, 2023
Michael Ard

In a complex and rapidly changing world, preparing the next generation of intelligence analysts requires experience, insight, and expertise. For Michael J. Ard, Program Director of Johns Hopkins University’s MS in Intelligence Analysis program, meeting that challenge means drawing on his and his faculty’s extensive practical experience and ensuring the program keeps pace with developments in the field and around the world.

Leading the program since 2021, Ard has in the past served as a Naval officer and CIA analyst and manager, and also performed intelligence-related work in the private sector. He is the author of An Eternal Struggle: How the National Action Party Transformed Mexican Politics, has taught in higher education since 2015, and hosts the Inside Intelligence webinar series. Read on for insight from Ard on how the program prepares students, trends affecting intelligence analysis, and what’s ahead for the program.

How does a graduate program like JHU’s prepare students for work in intelligence analysis?

Our goal is to educate students at the graduate level on intelligence analysis so that they understand what intelligence analysis is and what it hopes to accomplish, how it functions in the U.S. Intelligence Community setting, its history, how it can be improved, how relationships with policymakers and intelligence collectors work, and how to behave ethically in intelligence, among other things. As we do that, we also help students improve their writing and research skills. We focus on teaching students how to think, rather than learning new software systems.

All of our faculty have unique experiences as practitioners as well as having an academic background and they are all sharing the knowledge that comes from their experience for the benefit of our students. That interaction with faculty is really foundational to the education students receive here. Our diverse curriculum is also a strength of the program, and it allows students some flexibility to dive deeper into areas they’d like to explore.

In addition to that, we are always working to ensure our core courses and electives keep pace with developments in the field and that students will develop the expertise that they need to reach their goals. For example, we’re currently designing a new class on human intelligence and another on analyzing foreign militaries. We also just started offering a new class on private-sector intelligence, which is increasingly in demand by students who seek to go in that direction. I don’t know of another program that has a course like that.

When they graduate, our students are very well prepared. They’ve developed a base of knowledge and expertise that might take years to build if they were just starting out in the field.

What are some of the trends in intelligence analysis and how do they affect what students learn?

We have seen a significant shift from the more than 20-year focus on the war on terrorism to a focus on issues like great power rivalry, how technology is shaping the world, the impact of climate change, and how pandemics affect the global economy.  There has been a broadening of what many people consider to be legitimate intelligence topics, so our program and others like it have to adapt to ensure we prepare students to tackle those issues.

We can do that through our existing courses and by designing new courses that ensure students keep pace with developments in the intelligence analysis environment, but we also keep students and the community up-to-date through frequent webinars that address emerging issues or try to shed light on older or perennial issues. Our Inside Intelligence series brings in experts to discuss relevant topics. For example, we recently had discussions about the use of ChatGPT in intelligence analysis and the Global Trends 2030 report.

What in your professional background supports your efforts in the classroom and in your leadership of the program?

I spent almost 15 years in the Intelligence Community and also had some background in corporate security areas using risk assessment processes and intelligence analysis to try to guide companies in murky overseas environments. I was formerly a Naval Officer and a lot of our students are on active duty, so they appreciate that I know something about their challenges. Especially for students who are trying to get a degree like this on active duty—I have a deep empathy for that, having been there myself years ago. I also had experience teaching online at American Public University System, which gave me a lot of insight into how to be successful running a solely online asynchronous program.

For you as program director and an educator, what is the most rewarding aspect? And what are the challenges?

In any job I’ve been in I’ve always asked myself, “Am I smiling when I go to the front door? Am I looking forward to this?” I’m working from home, so I don’t go to the front door, but I get up every morning and I look forward to interacting with my colleagues and with students. I teach Art and Practice of Intelligence and another course called Intelligence Analysis, as well as our capstone course, and I find that very rewarding. And I enjoy the challenge of being a program director in terms of delivering great courses, creating a sense of community, writing on intelligence and security issues, participating in conferences, and ensuring our students develop all the capabilities they need to excel in their careers and contribute in meaningful ways to field.

While there are many benefits to online education, there are challenges to this mode of delivery as well. We are always thinking about how we can improve the online environment so that students don’t miss out on any of the benefits of face-to-face interactions and can fully engage and benefit from everything online education can offer. It’s an ongoing process to ensure we do that, and it is both rewarding and challenging.

What changes do you hope to implement in the coming years for the program?

Well, one thing we have done and will continue to do is increase the electives that are offered. That provides more flexibility and gives students a chance to take more courses outside of this program if they want to. As I mentioned, we have a few new courses in development that focus on topics that are important to an education in this field. We will continue to look at electives we can offer that ensure students develop the knowledge they need and will continue to ensure our core courses keep pace with trends and developments in the field.

We will also maintain our emphasis on education—rather than training students in specific platforms or systems—so that students are learning how to think, how to communicate, the history and the traditions of intelligence analysis, and the methodology of the discipline. I speak to recruiters fairly regularly and they are looking for students who have very good communication and critical thinking skills and who understand how intelligence analysis fits into the greater whole. So, developing those skills and that knowledge will always be a vital part of what we do.

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