U.S. Naval Academy: Stewardship and Direction

By John Allen Williams

Anticipating the Review Commission

A series of misadventures by midshipmen and others during the past year renewed public scrutiny of the institution. Partly in response to this, the Naval Academy Board of Visitors established a commission last autumn to review Academy direction and to report whether the institution is on track. It has been described by the Superintendent as a "reality check," although it has the look, to some, of a preemptive strike designed to head off a more rigorous inquiry from less friendly quarters.

The commission has begun its work, and before long, it will become apparent whether it is conducting a serious inquiry or participating in a public-relations exercise. With all respect to its distinguished and overcommitted members, my expectations for its review would be higher if more of the commissioners were social scientists who had published on professional military education.

In anticipation of the report, it is useful to put current Naval Academy issues in a wider perspective. Current events and personalities, while interesting, are important only as far as they relate to more general issues. Mention of a concern does not imply that nothing is being done about it by the Academy's administration or others merely that it is important and warrants further discussion. Given the constraints on time, resources, and space, my observations are necessarily selective and impressionistic.

My major impression is that the present Naval Academy administration inherited a bad situation-the worst part of which was a serious cheating scandal handled very poorly by its predecessors. There was a strong public perception of favoritism being shown to athletes and sources involved in the investigation report that some "evidence" developed by the Academy was so tainted that many of the cases had to be dismissed. The corrosive effect of this affair on the Brigade of Midshipmen cannot be overstated.

The current leadership has improved the situation, but there have been slips along the way.3 Much remains to be done, but a reemphasis on ethics and character development at all levels will give future Naval Academy administrations a more solid base upon which to build. The increased systematic attention paid to the ethical development of midshipmen by this Academy administration will be its most important and enduring legacy.


The following assumptions provide a common ground for a discussion of service academy issues:

  • The purpose of military academies is to develop future military and civilian leaders intellectually, physically, and morally to perform their military duties with distinction and to have lives of honorable service to the nation in or out of uniform.
  • Military academies do not belong to their current denizens, student or staff. Nor do they belong to their alumni-although this will be news to many of them or to the military services. They belong to the American people, who entrust their sons and daughters to academy leaders and the security of their country to academy graduates. It is they who must judge the performance of those who are the temporary custodians of the institutions.
  • Independent information is essential to judge the stewardship of the academies. Public discussion of academy issues is vital to this oversight role. Therefore, the media are not the problem; they are part of the solution. They are not the enemy - the occasional unethical reporter, editor, or author notwithstanding. Similarly, messengers of troublesome opinions, however unwelcome the opinions or annoying the messengers, should be encouraged rather than shot.
  • Midshipmen and cadets still are adolescents, with all that implies for maturity, moral development, and hormone levels. They do not arrive at their respective academies fully formed, or there would be no need for the institutions. In some important ways, they arrive less well prepared than in the past. Therefore, the academies must develop strategies to enhance the development of their students in all dimensions that bear on their professional effectiveness.

Values and Ethical Development

Current problems must be put into historical perspective. Scandals at institutions of higher learning are not new, even at the service academies. There were serious cheating scandals at the Air Force Academy in 1965 and 1983, at the Military Academy in 1951 and 1976, and at the Naval Academy in 1992. Incidents of theft, sexual misconduct, and drug use have occurred at all academies. They make news because midshipmen and cadets espouse a higher standard of personal conduct and the public rightly expects that they will live up to it. Honor codes and ethics instruction can lessen the frequency and severity of such events, but cannot prevent them entirely. Far worse incidents at civilian colleges usually attract only passing public notice.

Ethical concerns require constant attention, especially in institutions where issues of honor are taken seriously. The services made steps in this direction with the promulgation of their "core values." They differ somewhat in wording, but all have as their foundation honorable and selfless service to the nation. Each academy seeks to imbue its students with these values as soon as possible and has devised a rigorous program of indoctrination to this end.

The Naval Academy derives its culture from the Navy and the military in general, particularly the Marine Corps. Recently, the Navy has had its own political problems with the wider society, which too often loses sight of just how well naval units and installations are carrying out their operational responsibilities. The Navy has been on the moral defensive since the 1991 "Tailhook" incident, after which the appalling behavior of some was used as a wedge issue to force social change-particularly upon the Navy. Recent and even more serious incidents of sexual misconduct at Army training camps have brought public attention back to this issue.

A greater problem for all the academies is an ethical meltdown in American society, reflected in the behavior of national leaders across the political spectrum. This is not a new phenomenon, but it may be getting worse. I remember all too well, as a young lieutenant assigned to the Naval Academy, watching a part of the Watergate hearings that showed that national leaders were routinely behaving in ways that would cause a midshipman to be expelled in short order. The distinguished and honorable Navy captain who then headed my division turned away from the screen, not so much in disgust as mystification. It never had occurred to him that high leaders could act so dishonorably. That we have lost our capacity for such amazement today is not a good sign.

Midshipmen are recruited from this milieu, and serious remediation is in order for many. Unfortunately - because juvenile court records are sealed, high school counselors are not always candid, and admissions officers are not clairvoyant - it is difficult to identify potential troublemakers in the applicant pool. Officers also come from and live in this society, and a military commission is an imperfect predictor of ethical behavior. It is imperative that ethical standards be uniform across all grades; anyone violating them must be called to account.

Leadership effectiveness is not entirely dependent on natural gifts, and its essentials can be taught.6 Similarly, character can be developed, with different reinforcements appropriate for different stages of moral awareness. The Naval Academy has made a notable effort with its "ethics across the curriculum" program to ensure that midshipmen understand the moral demands inherent in the choices they make. The program intends to convince the midshipmen that loyalty to individuals, although crucial on the battlefield, should never supersede loyalty to the truth.

The establishment of an endowed chair at the Naval Academy for a noted civilian ethicist is an important development, despite predictable grumbling from traditionalists who insist that only deck-plate ethics and leadership instruction is worthwhile-and who seem to distrust professors on principle. This attitude is sufficiently prevalent among all grades in the Navy to pose problems for any academically based instruction in such areas. Even the Marine Corps, falsely stereotyped as anti-intellectual, takes academic insights more seriously than the Navy does?

The Naval Academy's focus on character development is praiseworthy, particularly in the face of overall Navy ambivalence and even hostility toward academically based training in such matters. The positive results of this initiative will remain long after the details of recent events have been forgotten.

Current Issues

Several current issues need to be addressed because they relate to more general concerns, including the important question of the role of a military academy in a democratic society. It is a tricky issue: Midshipmen do need to be morally excellent, yet should not believe that they are serving a corrupt civilian society. They need to understand the role of politics, the virtue of compromise, and the importance of a strong and independent press.

  • "Civilian" versus "military" orientation of the Academy: Without wishing to revive the old debate about whether the Naval Academy is or should become Sparta on the Severn, I suggest that there is an unfortunate confusion about what needs to be "military" at any of our military academies and what does not. In particular, there is a perception among some in Annapolis (including alumni) that privileges are somehow unmilitary, particularly when granted to lower classmen, and that things have become too easy. Upperclassmen were thought to need to spend more time in their company areas exercising "leadership by presence," although by doing precisely what was never made quite clear. There also is a tendency among some military people to assume that civilian practices are less rigorous than military ones-the experiences of students at such institutions as Swarthmore and MIT notwithstanding.

In fact, the opposite may be true. It would greatly increase the rigor of the Academy experience to reduce random and meaningless stress and combine realistic military leadership training with the toughest academic program imaginable - including a greater emphasis on the social sciences and humanities in the curriculum. I would also retain the emphasis on physical fitness, although not necessarily Division I intercollegiate athletics, and increase the time given to character development. None of this is antithetical to the creation of future war fighters, the raison d' ê tre of our military academies. In any case, not everyone in the military needs the training or the mind-set for frontline combat. Only a small percentage of the military is ever involved in the direct application (as opposed to management) of violence, but all will live in the society they defend. They must be aware of its basic values and be sympathetic toward them.

  • Anti-media ethos: Unfortunately, the anti-media ethos so prevalent in the military since Vietnam is alive and well at the Naval Academy. What lessons do midshipmen learn from the hostile interactions of the administration with the Baltimore Sun or the cancellation of the Academy's subscription to the Navy Times-both reported in electronic messages to the Brigade? Do they learn the important role of a free press in informing a public that has a right to know what is going on at its institutions? Or, on the contrary, do they come to believe that they are singled out for unfair criticism because they are part of the military, because the newspapers are out to get them, or because they are so close to major media outlets that they get more than their share of attention? (It is likely that the other academies have avoided a good deal of scrutiny because of their locations and that some stories have thereby escaped the attention of the The Washington Post.)

Even if the Naval Academy had been singled out for unfair attention-and the articles I have seen so far do not bear this out-it is not appropriate for instructors or administrators to generate paranoia among midshipman with unfounded opinions about media vendettas. It is certainly unwise to be driven by a public-relations mentality. Good public relations, like personal happiness, is the result of otherwise worthwhile activity, and pursuing it too single mindedly leads to problems.

  • Gender integration: Integrating women into the Brigade of Midshipmen has proved to be more difficult than many anticipated. Since only about 16% of midshipmen are women, they form a psychological minority as well as an actual one. By contrast, the situation for women at the Coast Guard Academy is better. There they comprise about one-third of the students and have a critical mass that is of great psychological importance. The recent opening of essentially all billets in the Navy to women - as has already been done in the Coast Guard - also will improve their integration into the mainstream of the Academy, but they never will be completely integrated as long as their numbers remain so low. Some Navy people will never get the word, but the struggle is over, and it is time to move on and make the changes work.
  • Quality of company officers: Duty as a company officer is not perceived as career enhancing, and there is little time in most career progressions for three years in Annapolis, away from one's warfare community. In addition, little except on-the-job training has been available for company officers. That omission is now being addressed-although how effectively cannot yet be determined. Beginning in the summer of 1997, incoming company officers will participate in a master's degree program in Leadership Education and Development, offered with the Naval Postgraduate School, modeled on the relationship between the U.S. Military Academy and Long Island University. Personal intervention with the Bureau of Personnel by the Superintendent also may be needed to ensure a flow of the highest quality officers for these crucial positions the most important in the Academy for midshipman leadership training.

Fortunately, there are more truly excellent company officers at the Naval Academy than one would expect, in view of the career disincentives. It is good that this is so, because it is not enough that midshipmen be ethical. They also must be inspired, and company officers are the key to this. We cannot entrust our nation's defense to a military of uninspired clerks, no matter how ethical they may be.

  • Role of civilian faculty: The fact that some 50% of Naval Academy faculty are civilian (concentrated in the traditional academic departments) confers both advantages and disadvantages. Overall, it is a strength, since these individuals are a unique resource, both as civilians and scholars. Unless the Navy is willing to invest more heavily in civilian graduate education for its best officers (an excellent idea whose adoption is unlikely, given the Navy's fiscal and intellectual climate), it will have no choice but to rely on civilians for most of the academic instruction at the Academy. Contractual arrangements, such as faculty tenure, also mitigate against significant change. The administration should expect the civilian faculty to support fully the mission of the Academy; those unwilling to do so should not be teaching there.

There is a cost involved in such a civilian emphasis, however. The cycling of top officers through academic departments at the U.S. Military Academy provides what they call a "second graduation" of officers going to the field. This increases the number of linkages between West Point and the Army as a whole-especially because fewer than half of the officers assigned to the Military Academy are alumni. Of course, if military officers are to be placed in the classroom, they need to be well trained and well educated. With the end of the Vietnam War, the number of officers with appropriate graduate degrees available for assignment to the Naval Academy has decreased. The Army handles this problem by sending its academic officers to graduate school for two years before their West Point assignment to work on their advanced degrees. The program has much to recommend it, and is essential at West Point where the ratio of civilian faculty to military approaches only 20%.

  • Communications with the administration: In most respects the accreditation report of the Middle States Association was quite favorable, as the Superintendent properly noted in these pages last year. The exception was in the area of faculty morale and a perception of communication problems with the administration-issues "not mentioned in the [Academy's] Self-Study Report." The inspectors went on to observe, "They [the faculty] are concerned about dissent and being typed as uncooperative. Many believe, rightly or wrongly, that taking an opposing point of view in discussions with the administration may lead to retaliation." This belief could only have been enhanced by the reaction of the administration to public criticism by an Academy professor in a newspaper piece, to include his temporary removal from the classroom, his directed preparation of a report (subsequently buried, along with its extensive appendices, after a cursory review by the Board of Visitors), and his demonization in a public meeting.
  • Brigade cynicism: Some midshipmen report a high level of cynicism within the Brigade. This is not a new development and is to be expected among students of that age. More troubling is a perception among some midshipmen of a double standard-between officers and midshipmen, and between the genders. These perceptions may not be accurate, but they should be explored carefully by means of focus groups, counseling, and impartial surveys subject to public scrutiny and professional criticism. After a four-day visit, the accreditation team found that "Student morale is high despite periods of great stress, personal frustration, and self-doubt...." The visitors did not say how they reached this conclusion, but impressionistic judgments (including my own) must be validated by more rigorous methods if they are to be relied upon.

The most corrosive perception that can arise is one of unfairness and hypocrisy. Appropriate common standards must be seen to apply despite gender or rank. "Form 2 leadership," the substitution of negative sanctions for positive reinforcement, is widely disliked by midshipmen. Some describe a "fry-a-thon" last spring in which some midshipmen, in support of what they believed were the wishes of the administration, went out of their way to see how many of their fellow midshipmen they could put on report for petty offenses. As a matter of fact, there are so many rules there that it is impossible for even the most conscientious midshipman to follow them all leaving individuals to decide for themselves what the "real" rules are. If everything is important, nothing is.

Future Academy Leadership

The unprecedented assignment of a four-star admiral to head the Naval Academy was made to deal with the unique set of problems mentioned earlier. Similarly, Army General and Princeton Ph.D. Andrew Goodpaster was brought out of retirement in 1977 to deal with an even more serious cheating scandal at West Point, although he chose to revert to three stars so as not to outrank the Army Chief of Staff. Having a full admiral lead the Naval Academy greatly increases the Academy's ability to get what it needs in Washington and raises the overall prestige of the institution. Such a person also is nearly "bulletproof" throughout the Navy-which has the side effect of reducing Navy scrutiny of the institution. The degree to which this is desirable is debatable.

There is no other flag officer assigned to the Naval Academy, unlike the Military and Air Force Academies. No one else on the staff in Annapolis approaches the status of a four-star admiral. The next most senior members of the Naval Academy's leadership are relatively junior: the Commandant of Midshipmen is typically a Navy captain and the Academic Dean is always a civilian academician. Other members of the administration are even farther down the food chain.

This leads to a potential problem with the advice offered to any Superintendent of the present rank and the likelihood of its being received gladly. Four-star flag officers are the closest thing we have to royalty in this country, certainly within the military. They stand too close to the sun to be observed directly. Leaders who rise to the very top in hierarchical and authoritarian structures are not used to enduring criticism, especially by subordinates-and they tend not to like it much. This can have a chilling effect for all but the most intrepid would-be critics, especially if there are indications that dissenters will be penalized.

For the long term, the position of Superintendent should be filled by an experienced vice admiral for a four- or five-year term as a terminal assignment. Consideration should also be given to elevating the position of Commandant of Midshipmen to rear admiral (upper or lower half). Either of these positions also could be filled by a Marine Corps general officer of comparable grade. Although some social distance between a three-star admiral and a one- or two- star admiral remains, it is bridgeable. The Academic Dean should be a serious academician of similar stature.


The Board of Visitors' review commission has had an opportunity to move beyond surface impressions, and will make its recommendations soon. The results should show that an independent commission and its staff had the expertise, independence, and resources to do the job properly. If they do not, the members of the commission and the Board of Visitors would have been better advised to remain at their day jobs.

I propose the following standards to evaluate the results:

  • The report should reflect serious social science insights. It should not be an impressionistic, seat-of-the-pants tour d'horizon of the usual topics. The study should include original research assessing the attitudes and levels of moral development of both midshipmen and the officers with whom they interact. Surveys undertaken should have been developed by experienced academic survey researchers, and instruments used should have been based on scientific models of ethical learning.
  • The report should include relationships between the Academy and the Navy (and the Marine Corps) as a whole, and with society. It is crucial to understand the ways in which the Academy is embedded in a Navy that has its own set of problems and sensitivities. The relationships between the Navy itself and a civilian society that does not always understand or appreciate it also are relevant, but are beyond the scope of the report.
  • The report should be made public in its entirety. This will avoid the mining of selective portions by Naval Academy spokespersons for positive findings or by critics for negative ones.
  • Mechanisms should be proposed to ensure that commission recommendations are attended to and that oversight of the Academy will be well informed and consistent.

The goal is clear: to enhance the culture of the Naval Academy so it can inculcate in its graduates the highest standards of honor and character. If the Academy fails to do so it becomes merely a nautical trade school; that function can be performed more economically elsewhere. More generally, if professional officers of whatever accession program or service fail to live up to the public trust, a great national institution will have lost its soul and society itself will be imperiled.


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