During an April 1995 address at the U.S. Naval Academy's Foreign Affairs Conference, Secretary of Defense William Perry was asked, "Where will the service academies be in the 21st century?" His quick reply was, "In Annapolis, West Point, and Colorado Springs."
In his 1995 commencement address at the U.S. Air Force Academy, President Bill Clinton stated, "I have seen something of the debate . . . on the question of whether in this time of necessity to cut budgets, we ought to close one of the service academies. And I just want to say that I think that's one of the worst ideas I have ever heard of. It was General [Dwight] Eisenhower as President, along with the Congress, [who] recognized that national defense required national commitment to education. But our commitment, through the service academies, to the education and preparation of the finest military officers in the world must never wane."
All of our senior leaders have voiced strong support for the service academies and their value to the military and the nation. However, if service academies are to remain relevant, the characteristics we desire in the military officers of the 21st century must be defined, and the academies must have a critical role in producing those officers. A foundation of values for our officer corps must be established. These values of honesty, integrity, teamwork, equal opportunity, and respect for human dignity are the very fabric of our society and the principles on which our nation was founded. They are all issues of character, and developing leaders of character is what the service academies are all about.
There has been a recent increase in criticism concerning the value of service academies and relating them to the downsizing of the military, the passing of the Cold War, and the pressure to reduce the federal budget. Questions of relevance and affordability also have been raised. These questions are being addressed in various media, spurred on by a small number of persistent critics.
What all these criticisms and questions have in common is what the critics would like everyone to accept as universal "truths." These so-called "truths" are actually allegations:
- That service academy graduates cost more than other officer accession sources
- That their graduates do not perform better
- That their graduates do not remain in service any longer than officers from other sources
When one looks closely at these so-called "universal truths," something becomes apparent: They simply are not true. We need to examine those arguments more closely, discuss the uniqueness of the service academies, and understand why they are critical to the future of our country.
Universal "Truth" Number One: Service academies cost more.
Cost more to whom? Certainly not to the U.S. taxpayer, who ultimately foots the bill for all military training and education. On the other hand, the figures frequently quoted for the cost of a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) graduate neglect to include the cost of summer training and the amount to administer and run the program. When these are included—as they should be—the costs are nearly equal. Even if one accepts the incorrect premise that the initial undergraduate costs of service academy graduates are higher than that of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), these undergraduate costs are minuscule compared to the overall training costs that accompany a military career.
For example, it costs almost $1 million to train a pilot, and a similar amount to develop a nuclear-qualified submariner. If postgraduate training costs and undergraduate expenses are coupled with statistics on length of service, promotions, and selection for command of ships and aircraft squadrons, the return on the investment is much clearer. When costs are amortized over an officer's career, the higher success rate at postgraduate training schools and the higher retention rate for Academy graduates result in the Naval Academy being 50% more cost-effective than any other commissioning source.
Universal "Truth" Number Two: Service academy graduates do not stay longer.
This perception does not come from any data officials at the service academies are familiar with. Retention rates for Naval Academy graduates exceed all other officer accession sources at every major career decision point. For example, to produce 40 career-designated officers—those with at least ten years of service and selected for lieutenant commander—requires an initial accession of 100 Naval Academy graduates, 140 from NROTC, and 153 from Officer Candidate School (OCS). Furthermore, the last class that was tracked to reach the 20-year point had a retention rate of 41% for the Naval Academy, 24% for NROTC, and 21% for OCS. So that universal truth has absolutely no factual basis.
The mission of the Naval Academy is to graduate people who will make it to the 10- and 20-year points. Then that million-dollar investment in flight training is worthwhile and will pay off because the graduates stay in the service. People from other sources who enter the service, complete their minimum obligation, then leave are not providing the same return on the taxpayer's investment. One should not look at what the service academies are spending any budget year. Rather, the long-term investment value that the academies provide to our country should be studied.
Universal "Truth" Number Three: Service academy graduates either fail to perform better or are indistinguishable in performance from other officer-accession sources.
What data were used to reach that conclusion? The average number of months it took to make lieutenant for graduates of the three primary officer sources. More than 95% of all officers make lieutenant, and all make lieutenant in the same length of time. Therefore, this is not a valid measure of effectiveness of the relative commissioning sources.
Look at other measures that are relevant: e.g., promotion rates to lieutenant commander, commander, captain, and admiral. First, a great majority of officers from other sources leave the service before they are even eligible for promotion to lieutenant commander. Of those officers who do stay in the service, the selection rate for Naval Academy graduates over the last three years for lieutenant commander, commander, and captain has been at least 10% higher than any other source. Early-selection rates for Academy graduates also are much higher for lieutenant commander, commander, and captain. Over the last 30 years, the Naval Academy has produced between 15 and 18% of the unrestricted line officers, and Academy graduates comprise 27% of the Navy captains and 54% of the admirals.
Some critics say that fewer than one-third of all the admirals are service academy graduates because they count doctors, dentists, lawyers, and other such specialists, whom academies do not produce. The Naval Academy's role is to produce officers with actual warfare specialties—that is, surface warfare officers, aviators, submariners, or unrestricted line officers. Of those admirals, 54% are Naval Academy graduates.
The taxpayer should not focus on costs, but on worth—what the service academies in general and the Naval Academy in particular are doing for our nation and our Navy.
The strongest argument in support of the service academies is the "value added" factor, which makes the Naval Academy program uniquely worthwhile.
The Naval Academy's new Character Development Program adds value. It is a four-year, integrated process, in which basic American values and those of the Navy and Marine Corps are strengthened and reinforced. The Character Development Program starts with a 14-hour education program for plebes [freshmen] during their first summer. Eight hours are dedicated to honor and integrity, and six hours address issues of human dignity. These lessons are taught by teams of officers and senior midshipmen, to ensure that the plebes receive the perspective on these critical issues of both the officers and their fellow midshipmen. The climax to this initial development phase is a visit for all plebes to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., where they can see firsthand the evidence of terrible consequences that can occur when morality and respect for human dignity are lost and loyalty is misplaced.
The program continues into the academic year for all midshipmen, through monthly seminars led by well-trained integrity-development teams consisting of staff, faculty, officers, coaches, and senior midshipmen. These team-conducted seminars are ethics-based, using a formal text and other relevant material. Each seminar has a specific theme, and all midshipmen participate, in groups of about 15. These 90-minute seminars require advance reading and are conducted for all classes in the middle of the academic day—about 1000 on Mondays—not after hours or at some other time that might be interpreted as lessening their importance.
This past year, the program concentrated on components of honor, integrity, honesty, responsibility, and fairness with readings ranging from Plato's Republic to Herman Melville's Billy Budd. This coming year the topics center on the foundations of honor and choosing the always-more-difficult "what is right." Subsequent years in this four-year effort will focus on living honorably and being citizens who accept the concept of honor as a way of life.
These seminars, although a critical aspect of the overall Character Development Program, will not in themselves fully develop the sought-after core values. These lessons must be complemented and reinforced in all phases of a midshipman's development, with broad-based support coming from all members of the Naval Academy family. To accomplish this objective, an in-place program called "Ethics Across the Curriculum" structures courses in English, history, government, leadership, computer science, and engineering design, to complement the monthly seminars, and demonstrates to the midshipmen that there are ethical components to be found throughout history. Faculty members who have been a part of these integrity development teams have stated that the seminars have sparked more discussions of ethics in all their classes, and that this has inspired them to make ethics and moral reasoning an integral part of their instruction. More important, an environment has been created in which ethical issues have permeated the entire Academy structure, and where ethical issues are introduced daily to midshipmen.
The next phase of the Naval Academy's program will begin this fall, with the introduction of a formal, required ethics course for all third-class midshipmen [sophomores]. Its purpose is to strengthen the midshipmen's backgrounds in the foundations of ethical thought and moral reasoning, so they will be better prepared to participate in both seminars and make moral decisions as they progress through the Academy. This ethics course also will include a portion built around a book of case studies of real-world ethical choices—including situations experienced by junior officers in the fleet—and the results of those choices. Lessons also have been designed that cover respect for human dignity and consideration of others, for use in the existing leadership courses and as part of the Plebe Summer program.
The Naval Academy has just completed a yearlong review of its honor concept, to make it an integral and more meaningful part of midshipman life. It is necessary for people to internalize a sense of honor before they can bring honor to the institution and honor to the profession. The honor concept originally said that midshipmen will not lie, cheat, or steal. Now, it still says midshipmen will not lie, cheat, or steal—and they also will do what is right and honorable. The education program is focusing on doing what is right and honorable, after defining "right and honorable" and showing how such choices are made.
Complementing these education efforts is a newly established peer support program known as the Human Dignity Education Resource Officer (HERO). Midshipmen in this program are elected by their peers, then formally trained on issues such as conflict resolution, ethnic and gender discrimination identification, harassment prevention, and alcohol abuse indicators. Their purpose is to provide an alternative reporting or identification channel for those sensitive issues that midshipmen may be reluctant to bring to the formal chain of command—and to ensure that the affected midshipmen receive the proper support or counseling they need to achieve their full potential. In addition, the experience gained by these HEROs will be very beneficial when they face similar problems as officers.
This constitutes the Naval Academy's Character Development Program. Where else in the world can a four-year character development program be implemented as effectively? Challenge a hundred university presidents to put together a package like this and teach it at this level of thoroughness and intensity. But we know this can be done at the Naval Academy—and we are doing it.
The second thing that is unique to the Naval Academy is an intensive four-year leadership laboratory—learning how to subordinate self to team, self to group, self to mission, and self to nation; learning how to follow before leading; learning small unit leadership; moving up to larger group leadership; and then preparing for leadership in the fleet.
The entire leadership curriculum at the Academy has been restructured. The changes will allow leadership training to bring the focus back to the basics—the fundamentals that have brought success to the Academy over the past 150 years. Having strayed a bit too much from the basics, midshipmen now need to draw more from real-world case studies. Today, students hear from people who have been out where the rubber meets the road. In addition to learning some of the fundamentals of leadership, the midshipmen return to some of the basics—such as etiquette, manners, and naval traditions. They learn how to treat troops; how to command; how to deal with people; and what makes successful people and leaders.
Material taught in the classroom can be applied to situations found everywhere else at the Academy—in the dormitory, on the athletic field, and in the extracurricular-activity programs.
The Naval Academy produces 15-18% of the unrestricted line officers who enter the fleet each year. These officers have high standards of character, integrity, leadership, and professionalism, along with a sense of the traditions of the Navy and the nation. By example, they can set a standard that like-minded officers from other sources will want to rally around. At the same time, however, the NROTC and OCS programs produce many truly fine officers—so it would be totally inappropriate and wrong to say that service academies are better, elite, or superior.
What the service academies can instill in their graduates is reflected in the remarks of a now retired Marine Corps major general, who earned his commission through the Platoon Leader Candidate program. I had become friends with him during flight training in 1958. During a recent social event, the general said, "Thank you for going back and taking over the Naval Academy. I hope you will produce the kind of people you did back in 1958." Asked to explain his comments, the general elaborated. "I always looked up to you Naval Academy graduates. You showed me leadership; you taught me the way; you set the standard; you showed me the example; you got me started; and I really am grateful for your getting me headed in the right direction."
It is very important to understand that all of the sources will produce outstanding officers, and they all have the potential of producing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, service chiefs, and flag and general officers. However, if the academies are doing the job right, then they will send officers into the fleet who will lead by example and display the standards of integrity, leadership, and professionalism that will encourage like-minded officers to gravitate toward and emulate them. These young leaders need to be dedicated, competent, and prepared to lead by example. There is clearly a need for excellence without arrogance.
Service academy graduates can have an enormous impact on the professionalism and the integrity of not only the military services but also the communities in which they live. If successful, Naval Academy graduates and other officers will form one team and move forward together. By the time they are lieutenants, no one should be able to distinguish—by performance—an officer's commissioning source, because they will all be doing well. If this can be influenced by the standards set at the Naval Academy, then that is the success story. That is what makes the value added, makes any perceived extra cost worthwhile, and puts the debate on the proper plane.
Throughout history, support for the military has shown ebbs and flows, with ROTC units being shut down during the Vietnam War and a number of ROTC units being threatened with shutdown over other political issues. The administrations of these latter schools, for example, have said in effect, "If you're not going to change certain policies in the military, then we are not going to have ROTC on our campuses." In this time of uncertainty with respect to the future and in this time of downsizing, it is more critical than ever to maintain this core—this cadre, this input of professional officers—to help us ride through whatever turbulence lies ahead. In a sense, the academies are almost, in a sense, a counterculture, in that they are going against some of the norms of society with this emphasis on character development. Many young people today have an attitude of "Well, as long as you get away with it, it is okay;" or an attitude that says, "As long you don't break a law or go to jail, you're okay." There is almost an aura of twisted respect for those who manipulate the system and work around the edges to achieve success.
This has been spelled out in a letter from a frustrated professor at a leading graduate business school. After attending a faculty and student forum at his university on responsible business practices, the students who participated in the session were demanding that the school introduce problems with ethical content into the Master of Business Administration curriculum. Ironically—maybe even sadly—six or seven of the faculty panelists said that it was inappropriate. Although the students claimed they would be unprepared to contend with ethical problems in the workplace without some preparation from the business school, the panelists said this aspect of the students' lives was not the faculty's responsibility. Here are some of the faculty members' remarks to the students:
- "If you want ethics, go to Sunday school."
- "Don't mix your two facets of life, business and ethics."
- "You cannot teach people to be good people—just good managers."
- "Just obey the law. If there is no law against it, you may do it."
In a letter to his nephew in 1787, Thomas Jefferson said that the moral sense, or conscience, "is as much a part of man as his leg or arm." The Jeffersonian view is the one the Naval Academy and the Navy subscribe to. The view also forms the foundation that makes the Academy such a unique institution. If there is any single theme stressed for the midshipmen, it is the one of integrity. They are taught repeatedly that the most absolutely critical thing in the Navy is integrity. The one thing they can control—the one thing no one can take away from them and the one thing no one else can influence—is their integrity. Midshipmen are told that they must work to keep it, because if they lose it, they are not wanted in the Naval Service. The goal is to make any issue of integrity instinctive and Comfortable to deal with—to make any decision to do what is right second nature, even though it often may be more difficult.
The Naval Academy may indeed run counter to the prevailing culture in some ways, as it continues to produce people who are morally, mentally, and physically sound; in doing so, it performs a service for the country. The four-year immersion process at the Naval Academy lends itself to superb personal development.
The continued health of the service academies is as critical today as any time in our history. The cost-effectiveness and the value-added factors are already there. In this time of geostrategic uncertainty over many politically unsettled areas of the world, coupled with today's declining social values, the academy input is needed more than ever. The nation needs a core of strong, young leaders of character who are dedicated and will remain loyal to the principles on which this nation was founded.
Each commissioning source has a significant role in the development of our officer corps; each is very important to our nation's defense. All of them are needed. To be successful, everyone must work together, and good leadership can indeed bring everyone together. Finally, the service academies provide a source of stability that is very important not only to the military, but to society as a whole as we move toward the 21st century.
At the Naval Academy, senior leadership is committed to doing everything it can to produce young people who will lead by example, set the standard of professionalism and integrity, demonstrate excellence without arrogance, and be the leaders of today and tomorrow. American values are alive and well at the nation's service academies, and their leaders intend to keep it that way!
Admiral Larson is currently in his second tour as Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. Both a naval aviator and a nuclear submariner, he was the 15th U.S. naval officer to hold the position of Commanderin- Chief, U.S. Pacific Command, before his return to the helm at l Annapolis.