The Reality About Our Service Academies?

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The Reality About Our Service Academies?

Post by Ralph » Tue May 25, 2010 9:28 am

From The New York Times:

May 20, 2010
The Academies’ March Toward Mediocrity

Annapolis, Md.

THE idea of a football star receiving lenient treatment after testing positive for drug use would raise no eyebrows at most colleges. But the United States Naval Academy “holds itself to a higher standard,” as its administrators are fond of saying. According to policy set by the chief of naval operations, Adm. Gary Roughead, himself a former commandant of midshipmen at the academy, we have a “zero tolerance” policy for drug use.

Yet, according to Navy Times, a running back was allowed to remain at Annapolis this term because the administration accepted his claim that he smoked a cigar that he didn’t know contained marijuana. (He was later kicked off the team for a different infraction, and has now left the academy.)

The incident brings to light an unpleasant truth: the Naval Academy, where I have been a professor for 23 years, has lost its way. The same is true of the other service academies. They are a net loss to the taxpayers who finance them, as well as a huge disappointment to their students, who come expecting reality to match reputation. They need to be fixed or abolished.

The service academies are holdovers from the 19th century, when they were virtually the only avenue for producing an officer corps for the nation’s military and when such top-down institutions were taken for granted. But the world has changed, which the academies don’t seem to have noticed, or to have drawn any conclusions from.

With the rise after World War II of the Reserve Officer Training Corps programs at universities around the country, the academies now produce 20 percent or less of the officers in each service, at an average cost to taxpayers of nearly half a million dollars per student, more than four times what an R.O.T.C.-trained officer costs.

The institutions are set on doing things their own way, yet I know of nobody in the Navy or other services who would argue that graduates of Annapolis or West Point are, as a group, better than those who become officers through other programs. A student can go to a civilian school like Vanderbilt, major in art history (which we don’t offer), have the usual college social experience and nightlife (which we forbid), be commissioned through R.O.T.C. — and apparently be just as good an officer as a Naval Academy product.

Instead of better officers, the academies produce burned-out midshipmen and cadets. They come to us thinking they’ve entered a military Camelot, and find a maze of petty rules with no visible future application. These rules are applied inconsistently by the administration, and tend to change when a new superintendent is appointed every few years. The students quickly see through assurances that “people die if you do X” (like, “leave mold on your shower curtain,” a favorite claim of one recent administrator). We’re a military Disneyland, beloved by tourists but disillusioning to the young people who came hoping to make a difference.

In my experience, the students who find this most demoralizing are those who have already served as Marines and sailors (usually more than 5 percent of each incoming class), who know how the fleet works and realize that what we do on the military-training side of things is largely make-work. Academics, too, are compromised by the huge time commitment these exercises require. Yes, we still produce some Rhodes, Marshall and Truman Scholars. But mediocrity is the norm.

Meanwhile, the academy’s former pursuit of excellence seems to have been pushed aside by the all-consuming desire to beat Notre Dame at football (as Navy did last year). To keep our teams in the top divisions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, we fill officer-candidate slots with students who have been recruited primarily for their skills at big-time sports. That means we reject candidates with much higher predictors of military success (and, yes, athletic skills that are more pertinent to military service) in favor of players who, according to many midshipmen who speak candidly to me, often have little commitment to the military itself.

It’s no surprise that recruited athletes have been at the center of recent scandals, including a linebacker who was convicted of indecent assault on a female midshipman in 2007 and a quarterback who was accused of rape and dismissed from the academy for sexual misconduct in 2006. Sports stars are flattered on campus, avoid many of the onerous duties other midshipmen must perform, and know they’re not going to be thrown out. Instead of zero tolerance, we now push for zero attrition: we “remediate” honor code offenses.

Another program that is placing strain on the academies is an unofficial affirmative-action preference in admissions. While we can debate the merits of universities making diversity a priority in deciding which students to admit, how can one defend the use of race as a factor at taxpayer-financed academies — especially those whose purpose is to defend the Constitution? Yet, as I can confirm from the years I spent on the admissions board in 2002 and ’03 and from my conversations with more recent board members, if an applicant identifies himself or herself as non-white, the bar for qualification immediately drops.

Some in the administration have justified the admissions policies on the ground that it “takes all kinds” to be officers. But that’s not really what the academies recruit. They don’t give preference to accomplished cellists or people from religious minorities or cerebral Zen types.

We’ve even given less-qualified students a backdoor into Annapolis — the Naval Academy Preparatory School, our remedial institution in Newport, R.I., for admitted students who are not prepared to enter the academy itself. And if students struggle academically when they get to the academy, our goal is to get them to graduate at whatever cost. Thus we now offer plenty of low-track and remedial courses, and students who fail can often just retake classes until they pass: we have control over their summers and their schedules, and can simply drag them through with tutoring.

I’ve taught low-track English classes; the pace is slower and the papers shorter than in my usual seminars, but the students who complete them get the same credit. When I’ve complained about this, some administrators and midshipmen have argued that academics are irrelevant to being an officer, anyway. Really? Thinking and articulating are irrelevant to being an officer?

The picture I have drawn of the academy is not what most Americans imagine when they come to a parade and see all those clean-cut young men and women standing in nice rows with their chests out (as they will at next week’s graduation ceremony). Some may argue that our abandonment of merit as a criterion for officer status is simply the direction the military overall has taken — the stress of fighting two wars has lowered the bar for enlistment, and R.O.T.C. standards have also declined. But I’d like to think we could do better.

We have two choices. One is to shut down Annapolis, West Point and the other academies, and to rely on R.O.T.C. to provide officers. Or we can embrace the level of excellence we once had and have largely abandoned. This means a single set of high standards for all students in admissions, discipline and academics. If that means downgrading our football team to Division III, so be it.

We also need a renaissance in our culture. We need to get our students on board with the program by explaining our goals and asking for feedback from cadets, graduates and the armed forces at large. Now, we’re just frustrating the students and misleading taxpayers.

Change won’t happen from within. The short-term academy administrations want to keep the hype flowing, and tend to lack the big-picture thinking necessary to seeing the institution objectively. Rather, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and other civilians need to mount a full re-conception of the academies: deciding what do we do that’s wrong, what’s irrelevant and what deserves to be saved. Otherwise, my most promising students will continue to tell me, “Sir, this place shows you what not to do.”

Bruce Fleming, a professor of English at the United States Naval Academy, is the author of the forthcoming “Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide.”

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Re: The Reality About Our Service Academies?

Post by John F » Tue May 25, 2010 11:13 am

Bruce Fleming wrote:the Naval Academy, where I have been a professor for 23 years, has lost its way. The same is true of the other service academies. They are a net loss to the taxpayers who finance them, as well as a huge disappointment to their students, who come expecting reality to match reputation. They need to be fixed or abolished.
Fleming can claim to know what's what about the Naval Academy, where he teaches. But what does he actually know about West Point and the Air Force Academy? He doesn't say.

Nor does he back up his assertion that service academy graduates are no better prepared for their military careers than those who go through the ROTC. He says this is "apparently" so, but what is this based on? He doesn't say.

There's also the question whether ROTC is meeting the armed forces' requirements for recruiting and training future officers, so that the service academies are expendable. Not so. According to Wikipedia, "ROTC graduates constitute 56 percent of U.S. Army, 11 percent of U.S. Marine Corps, 20 percent of U.S. Navy, and 41 percent of U.S. Air Force officers, for a combined 39 percent of all active duty officers in the Department of Defense." The numbers talk.

No doubt it's discouraging, but should hardly be surprising, that some Naval Academy scholar-athletes have the same frailties as their counterparts on civilian campuses. And if the USNA's administration is giving violators a pass, as Fleming says, this must stop, and it's good that he has gone public about it.

I'm less impressed with his complaint that minority students aren't up to the academic level of the white majority, or that "academic mediocrity is the norm" in general. The service academies' mission is not to produce academic superstars but effective military leaders. Leadership would not seem to relate in any definable way to how well the Navy cadets do in Fleming's English classes. He doesn't claim any such relationship, or even mention active military service; his interest in and knowledge of his students' military careers appears to end on graduation day.

This blinkered outlook is strange in one who has been teaching at the Naval Academy for 23 years. But perhaps not so strange in a civilian teacher of English who according to his web site has never served in the armed forces and thus has no experience of what he and his academic colleagues are preparing their students for. Under the circumstances, it's not just fair but necessary to say that apart from blowing the whistle on some specific abuses, he apparently doesn't know what he's talking about.
Last edited by John F on Tue May 25, 2010 5:11 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The Reality About Our Service Academies?

Post by david johnson » Tue May 25, 2010 11:46 am

drop academy sports to division 2.
'students who fail can often just retake classes until they pass' - I think every academy should adopt this - the student must retake the class until he passes it or drops out, again and again if needed.

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Re: The Reality About Our Service Academies?

Post by jbuck919 » Tue May 25, 2010 4:18 pm

There is some information in there that is new to me. For instance, I don't follow sports, so I didn't know about the heavy recruitment/retention thing. I do know enough to know that Navy shouldn't be beating Notre Dame, and that for years if not decades the academies did not in fact field teams that succeeded more than occasionally at that level.

There is other information in the article that does not quite cover all the ground of what I at least think I know. For one thing, it is a not well known that, while the services academies rightly set admissions standards that are highly selective, they only attract about as many qualified people as they can accept, if that. This is partly because the standards are so high (e.g., minimum SATs of 1950 combined--that's three tests these days), and partly because the academies also have a variety of physical requirements that other colleges do not have related to the need for every cadet or midshipman to be world-wide deployable. So, for example, while Princeton may admit 1800 to fill a class of 1100 from a pool of 15,000 applicants of whom 10,000 meet qualifications to succeed there, the Air Force Academy has already narrowed down the number of qualified candidates to no higher than the number of places in the class before they are admitted. I know from having heard from academy admissions personnel that they would love to have a huge pool of qualified applicants to draw from, but they cannot manufacture what is not there, and that is one thing that explains some lowering of standards, including notably the academy prep schools.

As for academic standards at the academies, they have always been second-rate at best in the liberal arts, relying on many faculty who are officers without PhDs. Making them the equivalent of an elite academic institution in that respect would be a truly revolutionary development, and I assume that many in that world would not see much virtue in doing so. That is not the same as needing to rely on remedial instruction, which is another situation of which I was unaware.

The bottom line for the academies is the same as it is for life in the armed services in general--a primary qualification is a desire to have that life, which is apart from civilian life, and not suited to everyone no matter whether they are otherwise qualified for it or not.

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Re: The Reality About Our Service Academies?

Post by lennygoran » Tue May 25, 2010 7:31 pm

>Annapolis, Md.<

Sorry to hear about the service academy problem--still Annapolis is a city that's dear to us--we use it alot for exploring the Delmarva Peninsula and each year it looks better and better! Regards, Len
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Re: The Reality About Our Service Academies?

Post by Jean » Tue May 25, 2010 8:38 pm

students who fail can often just retake classes until they pass: we have control over their summers and their schedules, and can simply drag them through with tutoring.
I fail to see the problem with this if the first priority is for students to learn the material. This should be the case everywhere.

As for what division a team plays, there are realities that the author either doesn't understand or chooses to simplistically ignore. The basic differences are:
Div I - attracts sponsers & instituional grants/endowments, often televised, offers athletes full ride scholarships, athletes acn play all year round
Div II - attracts far less (or no) institutional money, permits only partial financial scholarship, athlete practice and playig season is limited
Div III - not permitted to offer any athlectic scholarship money, practice time is limited and team participation is limited to the sport playing season

The issue is very tied up with money and the process is not the problem, it is the way in which the given school manages the process. If the school bends the rules or mismanages the process and prioritizes over academics, then that will be pervasive throughout the school regardless of the athletic program. The problem is the school.

In terms of quotas (let's call it what it really is), it's disgraceful in my opinion for any school, regardless of whther it is privately or publicly funded. The only exception that makes sense to me is if the school has been established to fill a specific need for a specific population and specific funding for that program has been established or set aside and it is fully exposed.
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