Sidebar: What the Ivy League Can Learn
"Now hear this: Your new wingmen are Ted Turner and Jane Fonda." Relieved that this is apocryphal? That's not surprising. The next pronouncement, however, is not fantasy, and whether or not it is disturbing lies at the heart of the matter: The U.S. Naval Academy has more in common with the "liberal, elitist, anti-military" Ivy League than it has with any other institutions.
This connection supersedes any affinity the Naval Academy has with the Church, the Republican Party, and maybe even varsity athletics, which more than 80% of midshipmen have participated in before descending on Annapolis.
Certainly, stark differences distinguish these institutions. But their similarities—the young people they attract and the leadership roles expected of them—outweigh the differences. Those parallels provide each with an opportunity to learn from the other and thereby better fulfill its own mission.
In the interest of full disclosure: I was booted out of the Naval Academy halfway through my second-class year. The ostensible reason was misconduct; I was accused of cutting class. But the real reasons are more murky, lost in the fog of selective memory and embellished by too many drinking stories. Just say I was neither sinner nor saint. I always have valued my Academy experience and have enormous respect for the Navy.
Recently, I began to harbor a lingering suspicion that the Academy was not quite working. Too many news reports had surfaced too many serious incidents—cheating, drug, and sex scandals—to make me wonder whether some bad circuits might be corrupting the mother-board.
After three separate visits to Annapolis, several dozen interviews with midshipmen, faculty, and administrators, I have to admit I was wrong. The Academy, far from broken, is working quite well—at least in large measure. It is producing dedicated, capable young men and women who are committed to or are at least opened-minded about a career in the sea services. But could it do a better job? My answer is a resounding "yes."
I do not think the Academy is fulfilling its mission, which is, in part, "to provide graduates who . . . have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship, and government." Evidence suggests that the Academy has assigned—intentionally or not—this part of its mission a distinct back seat. Remember the bumper sticker sold at the Midshipmen's Store and the Visitor Center? It read: "Annapolis: America's leaders of Tomorrow." For generations, the Academy had been an incubator of leaders. Today, it seems to have turned inward, virtually abdicating its role in providing the United States with its leaders in government, business, and civic institutions.
What Works—In Part
As a source of career and senior Navy and Marine Corps officers, the Academy is more than holding its own. Captain Glenn Gottshalk, U.S. Navy (Retired), the Academy's Director of Institutional Research, points out that, to produce 100 Navy captains, the Academy has to graduate 790 ensigns. By comparison, Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) programs have to produce 1,226 ensigns to generate 100 captains, and the Officer Candidate School (OCS) program has to commission 1,587 ensigns to yield 100 captains. In short, through a combination of aptitude, dedication, performance, and perhaps, as some would argue, a touch of favoritism, Academy graduates are more than twice as successful at reaching the coveted O-6 rank as their civilian-school counterparts.
Critics have argued that, while the Academy does generate more career officers, it is not as cost-efficient as other sources. It costs some $200,000 to educate a midshipman at the Academy, compared to only $50,000 in scholarship fees per NROTC graduate. The Academy argues that the disparity is offset once the cost of pilot, nuclear-power, or other specialized training is included in the calculation—a conclusion with which I agree. In business terms, the "total cost" of the Academy-trained officer is about 14% more than NROTC officers. But with higher retention, the "lifetime value" of the Academy officer far offsets that higher initial investment.
What's Not Working
Three troubling questions emerge from these seemingly encouraging retention statistics:
Problem One—Attrition: Why is the Academy producing only about 790 ensigns annually (plus approximately 130 second lieutenants for the Marine Corps)? For the last 20 years fully 24% of every Naval Academy class has failed to graduate. This compares with an attrition rate of less than 2% for the Ivies.
Approximately 5% of each Academy class flunks out; just more than 3% is separated for misconduct or honor violations; the balance—about 15% of every class—decides the Academy just is not for them. One senior officer objected to my use of the phrase "failed to graduate." He argued that the decision to leave the Academy and pursue an education and career at another institution is not a "failure." Rather, it is an individual decision reached consciously and with great forethought.
This officer is right: it is not a failure on the part of the midshipman who leaves; it is an institutional failure. Any institution that has so many qualified applicants competing so vigorously for an appointment, and then selects so carefully from among them, should not be losing a quarter of its students.
If, as one officer suggested, this attrition is "planned"—a weeding out of people not right for naval service—it is a fiscally irresponsible policy. Even though most of the separations occur during a midshipman's first two years at the Academy, this attrition is costing the Academy—and the taxpayers—approximately $20 million annually.
But clearly, this is not just a financial concern. Rather, it is a problem that touches on bigger issues and suggests a serious disconnect between the Academy and society. Three possible explanations for this attrition are:
- The Academy's own admissions process is misjudging a candidate's potential to do the work or live within the high, clear standards of character and behavior. That admission process is the Academy's own. It involves congressional nominations but is no longer dominated by it. Instead, the admissions formula centers on a "whole-person multiple" that, in theory, balances a candidate's ability to succeed academically at the Academy and, later, as a naval officer.
- Young people are attending the Academy with a misperception of what it is really like. Or they are attending for the wrong reasons, the most common of which is parental pressure/expectations.
- The Academy is turning off good kids—kids identified as having both the skills and aptitude for naval service but who become disillusioned by the Academy itself.
Problem Two—The Missing Voice: The fleet has eroded to 323 ships. Problems with retention are debated in the news magazines and on the op-ed pages—not just in the professional military journals. Roper reports that the Navy is seen by the public as the least "effective at fighting and winning the nation's battles," and that almost as many people believe that military officers are overpaid as underpaid. Who must be accountable, if the not the officers who lead the Navy?
Unsurprisingly, a high concentration of Academy graduates are among the Navy's top ranks: 41% of current flag officers. Certainly, although an admiral's perspective is fashioned by 25-plus years of active duty, the Naval Academy experience provides the foundation. The problem appears to be a missing—or overwhelmed—voice of military leadership in the Navy's decision-making equation.
Many of the officers I interviewed place the responsibility for the fleet's erosion and retention problems with civilian decision makers, not senior military officers. Officers, they argue, advise and recommend but do not make policy decisions. They are the product of a culture that responds to authority—including civilian authority making "bad" decisions—with, "Yes, sir. Can do, sir."
I do not quibble either with the constitutional underpinning or the political reality of this position. I do think, however, that the military's voice has been muted in these policy battles. When the pro-military Wall Street Journal criticizes the Joint Chiefs of Staff for their lack of candor about preparedness—as it did last September—one has to worry about how many other policy decisions were made because military officers could not find their voice.
Problem Three—Lost at Sea: In leadership positions outside the Navy, Academy graduates are scarce. Of 535 members of Congress, only one Naval Academy graduate is among them: Senator John McCain (R-AZ). Of the Forbes 1,000 Top Corporations, only five are headed by Naval Academy graduates. Where are the Academy graduates who today are assuming the "highest responsibilities of command, citizenship, and government?"
So why should we be concerned about the Naval Academy? It may be the occasional (one even could say aberrant) scandal—cheating, drugs, sex—that triggers disproportionate media attention. But it is the systemic deterioration of the fleet—both personnel and ships—that demands continuous, objective reassessment of the Academy's practices. It is time for the Academy itself to ask: how can it fulfill its entire mission more successfully? And what can it learn from the Ivy League, which produces so many U.S. civilian leaders?
The Academy's Strongest Asset
On paper, midshipmen are clearly impressive. Their grades, Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, and extracurricular activities are almost indistinguishable from their Ivy League counterparts. The average math SAT score for midshipmen at the 25th percentile of the entering class is 630, almost identical to Cornell's 640 and just a bit lower than Brown's 650. Similarly, on the verbal SAT, the midshipmen more than hold their own: the Academy's average score of 600 is ahead of Columbia's 590, and just behind Cornell's 610.
According to the Time Magazine/Princeton Review guide to colleges, high school class standing is a bit higher for students entering the Ivies than for those starting the Naval Academy. But in terms of leadership positions held, participation in extracurricular activities, and varsity sports, the difference is negligible. Geographic representation and racial diversity are almost identical between the two groups, and only the percentage of women in each class is significantly different.
Are there other, more-difficult-to-detect cultural or political differences? Are midshipmen more conservative politically? Are the academies more Catholic and the Ivies more Jewish? Is it safe to assume that the incidence of military service among parents of midshipmen is higher than among those of Ivy League students?
One officer I interviewed hypothesized that most midshipmen come from homes where "fathers and mothers live in the same house together, and where the mom is a secretary and the dad is a plumber." I do not know whether the incidence of single-parent or professional families is higher in either population. But I suspect that officer will be surprised to learn that, at Harvard, 78% of students receive need-based financial aid, and 75% of undergraduates hold work-study jobs on campus. (In fairness, I should note that the other Ivies, with smaller endowments, can offer financial aid only to about 50% of their students.)
Some differences are obvious between the students at the Ivies and at the Academy, not the least of which is the midshipmen's willingness to accept the harsh restrictions placed on daily life. When you meet midshipmen in person, their paper-based statistics and accomplishments seem glaring understatements of their decency, energy, and commitment. Immediately clear is the fact that these are among the very best and brightest kids in the country today. I found it interesting that many whom I interviewed said they considered and were accepted by Ivy League schools.
I came away from my midshipmen encounters with a very clear conclusion: these are the Naval Academy's strongest assets. Overwhelmingly, they are honorable, smart, extraordinarily hard-working, and eager to serve—indeed, willing to give their lives for—their country.
Unfortunately, based on my interviews and from the institution's own survey data, too many midshipmen are disillusioned by the gap between the Academy's rhetoric and its practices; practices that fritter away the good will, aspirations, and trust of these terrific young people. To remedy that, and better to fulfill its mission, here are nine lessons the Academy can learn from the Ivy League:
Lesson One: Trust Them
Even though the Academy attracts some of the very best young people in the United States—kids who embrace the honor concept overwhelmingly—the Academy administration demonstrates, in big things and small, that it does not really trust midshipmen. This is manifest in the choices midshipmen are allowed—and not allowed—to make.
The sad irony here is that midshipmen in turn unfailingly recognize this lack of trust, such that an extraordinary cynicism permeates the brigade. In a conversation with me, even the Commandant of Midshipmen, Rear Admiral Gary Roughead, recognized and admitted to it. This cynicism leads to two types of widespread behavior: First, midshipmen spend an inordinate amount of time trying to beat the system; second, they subscribe overwhelmingly to the principal (unofficial) rule of Bancroft Hall: "Never bilge a classmate."
The most vexing problem for midshipmen stems from the conflict between these attitudes and behaviors and their underlying belief in the honor concept. Every internal survey underscores midshipmen's belief that honor "sets them apart." In more than a dozen off-the-record interviews with midshipmen, they revealed a keen awareness of the ethical and behavioral distinctions between the honor concept and the conduct system. The former is sacrosanct; the latter is fair game. This coincides with the Government Accounting Office's finding of midshipmen's widespread lack of confidence in the equity of enforcement.
In 1996, in direct response to the Electrical Engineering cheating scandal—and, as one officer suggested, in the shadow of "officers throughout the fleet being hammered for (questionable) ethics violations"—the Academy recognized and began to address the underlying problems. The Superintendent, Admiral Charles Larson, improved the character development program significantly. Today, all midshipmen participate in monthly "Integrity Development Seminars," take a core ethics course—"Moral Reasoning for Naval Leaders"—and hear from a wide range of noted speakers on ethical issues.
The changes in the character development program were a very good beginning, but the Academy needs to go further. A similar initiative is necessary to rethink and reshape the conduct system. Here, perhaps surprisingly, the Academy can learn a lesson from the Ivy League.
How do the Ivies demonstrate trust? "They treated us like adults" was the phrase heard repeatedly from Ivy graduates. In part, that translated into a two-pronged approach of "less is more" and "benign neglect."
The Ivies institute few formal rules of behavior beyond the civilian criminal statutes, and they turn a blind eye to most youthful indulgences. The real demonstration of trust, however, comes from the issues over which Ivy League students must take responsibility. Academically, Ivy League students must choose a much wider range of their courses than their Academy counterparts. (Within the Ivy League itself, this degree of autonomy takes many different shapes. At Brown, no course or distribution requirements exist; at Columbia, a core curriculum is tightly defined.) Ivy students must decide how to structure a major, when to study—even how to study—and whether to keep up with lectures and readings or cram during reading week.
As for social and extracurricular activities, they must decide what to play and when to play, whether or not to engage in sexual activity, and how to handle the freedoms afforded them. The underlying message, however, is that students are adults, they will be treated as such, and they will be held accountable for their performance. But few rules intervene.
Can the Academy adapt—if not adopt—the Ivy approach? Is it unrealistic for the Academy to scrap a reg book that defines midshipman life from reveille to taps and replace it with a set of clear objectives about what really matters? Is four years of seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day micro-management really necessary? Or could the Academy specify what must be achieved to graduate and be commissioned; and then allow midshipmen more flexibility and responsibility to meet those goals?
More important, can the Academy ask these questions and engage the midshipmen in answering them? That alone would go a long way toward establishing an environment of mutual trust.
Lesson Two: Build Self-Discipline
Midshipmen are busier and engage in a wider variety of activities on any given day, month, or year than most of their Ivy League counterparts. The problem is that they accomplish this through extraordinary structure. What happens when that structure is removed, as it is in much of the rest of the "real world?" Midshipmen need to learn to operate successfully without imposed constraints.
When presented with this hypothesis, Commandant Rear Admiral Gary Roughead, my former classmate, argued that midshipmen do have structure removed and often "bump into the walls learning where those constraints are."
Indeed, he is right—but only in part. Midshipmen do have to exercise enormous self-discipline in order to navigate the shoals of daily life and the conduct system. The issue is one of scale and consequence. Whether to fold one's underwear in the prescribed manner—or a hundred other prescribed behaviors—or get "fried," should not be the test of self-discipline for our next generation of leaders. The Academy should be asking: What experiences best test a midshipman's ability to handle lack of structure? And how important are these experiences?
Perhaps the most telling incident of this conflict between self- and imposed discipline occurred during my interview with two of the Academy's academic deans. I was looking for an example where the stakes were higher than whether or not to shine one's shoes. I asked, "Why not allow midshipmen to decide whether they should attend or cut a particular class? Allow them to prioritize, to make the decision that some other demand takes priority over attending class."
The deans obviously were distressed by the question. Their first answer was transparently disingenuous: "Well, the taxpayers are paying for them to attend class." The disbelieving look on my face triggered a more candid response: "Too many midshipmen would probably take advantage and flounder," they feared.
That is precisely why midshipmen must be given the opportunity to learn the skills of self-discipline before they leave the constraints of the yard. Once they become junior officers, the stakes will be much higher.
The specific reforms the Academy can adapt from the Ivy League go beyond allowing midshipmen to decide whether to attend or cut class. Academy-appropriate reforms will emerge if the Academy amends its attitude and approach to change. It should be asking itself a fundamental set of questions, and, just as important, engaging midshipmen fully in the effort to answer them. What is mission-critical, and what is a holdover from another era? What is essential to the character and performance of successful naval officers? What traditions deserve to be maintained, and what fears of becoming "too much like a civilian school" can be ignored? Does the Academy really need daily multiple formations and inspections? Does limiting evening and weekend access to town, cars, or televisions really engender a stronger commitment to studies?
A shift from dependence on imposed discipline to self-discipline can be achieved if the Academy recognizes that self-discipline is a corollary of trust and must support the twin pillars of responsibility and performance. If people believe they are trusted, given the responsibility to earn that trust, and held accountable for it, then a higher standard of performance can be sustained. If people believe they are not trusted, they respond accordingly: They perform for the monitor, typically cutting corners when they believe no one is watching.
Lesson Three: Close the Gap with Civilian Society
Much has been written about the increasing distance, the "disconnect," between the civilian and military segments of society. Although virtually none of the anti-military sentiment that ripped the country apart during and after the Vietnam War still remains, the end of the draft has limited the contact between segments of our society and the military. Probably the most extreme example of this disconnect centers on the Ivy League, which produces so many of our country's business, government, and opinion leaders. (To be sure, this is more the fault of the Ivy League, which banned ROTC from its campuses.)
Unfortunately, this isolation has been exacerbated by changes in Academy life in the aftermath of the cheating, sex, and drug scandals. In 1995-96 then-Superintendent Admiral Larson instituted new restrictions with the well-intentioned goal of getting midshipmen to "focus inward." Rather than allowing upper-classmen to escape the yard at every available opportunity, the admiral wanted midshipmen to spend more social and liberty time engaged in activities at the Academy, thereby building Brigade esprit de corps and cohesion. It was a reasonable objective, except for one long-term unintended consequence: More restrictive regulations result in less midshipman contact with their civilian counterparts, less understanding of civilian norms, and a greater disconnect.
To reduce this disconnect, the Academy can adapt four practices from the Ivy League:
- Make the Academy the place people want to be. If the Academy does not want to precipitate mass-exodus on weekends, it has a choice: It can continue to restrict weekend liberty. Or it can make the yard a place where midshipmen want to socialize with fellow midshipmen and invite civilian friends to join them. Unfortunately, for most midshipmen, the Academy's unrelenting rules and restrictions outweigh its beauty and resources. The Academy needs to find a better balance between its military underpinning and its desire to keep midshipmen from wanting escape every chance they get. Bancroft Hall need not turn into "Animal House;" but neither should it feel like the "Big House."
- Establish an extensive two-way exchange program between the Academy and top civilian schools. Encourage many midshipmen to take a semester at a civilian college, as early as second semester of third-class year. Let them experience the "fun" of a civilian college—along with the more mundane aspects—and require them to exercise newly honed self-disciplinary skills. In addition to a full academic load at their host school, participating midshipmen should be required to fulfill professional-development and "ambassadorial" requirements. Odds are, for the vast majority of midshipmen who take part in civilian exchange programs, the grass of the "outside world" will not be greener.
The argument against such a program will center on the claim that midshipmen have so many additional military requirements to be fulfilled at the Academy. That is a specious argument that can be addressed with a bit of flexibility and creative scheduling. And the benefits are well worth the effort.
- The corollary of allowing midshipmen to attend top civilian colleges for a semester is encouraging Ivy League students to attend the Academy for a semester. Odds are that more than a few—and certainly many more than are now coming from Ivy League schools—would choose to enroll in OCS programs upon graduation. Moreover, the exposure to just a semester of military people, thinking, discipline, and honor would be the single greatest bridge between the civilian and military segments of our society.
- Expand the professional development of midshipmen to include internships with members of Congress. Civilian control of the military is understood intellectually by most midshipmen. It is mitigated, however, by a barely concealed contempt too often expressed by mid-level officers over the fact that the vast majority of both the Congress and the Executive branch never served in the military.
Lesson Four: Raise the Academic Bar
Much has changed academically—almost all changes for the better—since I attended the Academy. The faculty has improved, with virtually all civilian professors holding advanced degrees and being encouraged to pursue research in addition to their teaching duties. The curriculum is broader and richer, with midshipmen taking more humanities and social science courses than they did when I was there. And many more graduate school opportunities are available both to Academy graduates and first-classmen. Indeed, about 9% of the Class of 1998 pursued advanced degrees.
But after sitting through classes, talking to faculty and midshipmen, and examining specific course curricula, several things are clear:
- While the academic program is rigorous, the process of education at the Academy makes it much more like the nation's toughest high school than an Ivy League college. With compulsory attendance at every class, weekly quizzes and tests, and reading lists and assignments that are far from overwhelming, midshipmen are spoon-fed bite-sized pieces of knowledge that increase the likelihood of their success. It may be rigorous—more like medical school than college, noted one Harvard and Harvard Medical School graduate—but the academies just are not in the same intellectual league as the Ivies.
- Too many midshipmen still spend too much time sleeping in class. In one freshman seminar I sat through—with a professor whose command and engaging presentation of the material was every bit as compelling as most of the Ivy League professors I have encountered—fully one-third of the class drifted off at one point or another. Such behavior cheapens the academic environment. If sleep deprivation is a physical reality for plebes, we should be concerned about what else plebes are missing during that year. If it is not, then we should be furious about the message classroom dozing conveys.
More than a few officers raised the question, "What difference is there between a midshipman sleeping in class and a midshipman cutting class to sleep in his room?" The answer, I suggest, is respect—respect for the professor and respect for the academic process.
- The Academy experience is one of extraordinary breadth, often at the expense of depth. Typically, midshipmen take six courses per semester, plus physical education, leadership, honor, and character-development seminars. The typical Ivy League student carries only four courses per semester.
- The Academy is not anti-intellectual; but neither is it a hotbed of intellectual curiosity. Compare virtually any equivalent courses, and what immediately becomes clear is that the reading lists and writing requirements for the Ivy courses are noticeably tougher. Few Ivy students read all the required and recommended lists. But the bar is set higher, and the expectation is that they will come closer than their Academy counterparts.
These concerns about the Academy's academic standards and approach are countered by two very simple—and at first seemingly valid—arguments. First, officers argue that students at Ivy League schools have only one bar to jump over—an academic bar—while midshipmen have so many more. Even civilian students who play varsity sports, volunteer in community service projects, and hold down work-study jobs still do not have as much required of them as midshipmen. Second, the officers argue that life at the Academy is a zero-sum game: if we put more emphasis on academics, then something has to give.
Initially, these arguments appeared hard to rebut. After reviewing the notes of my interviews and re-reading the reports and speeches I had gathered, I concluded that both the administration and faculty want the Naval Academy to be a first-rate educational institution. Evidence of a commitment to excellence was clear. Never did I hear mitigating phrases designed to provide an escape hatch. As one professor put it, "We are committed to giving midshipmen a first-rate academic experience; not a first-rate experience within the constraints of the mission."
Underlying this commitment, however, was a clear recognition—almost a resignation—that the system and environment conspired against the higher standard. As one senior academic put it, "There is a very pragmatic quality to education and midshipman life. Midshipmen often demand of the faculty, ‘What do we have to know?' In turn, we have to ensure that we don't just give them the ‘gouge' but rather sell them on the fact that the ability to reason, argue, and persuade are worth learning."
Both the Middle States Association accreditation report and the Board of Visitors Special Committee recognized that midshipmen need better critical-thinking skills, which may be "the most important foundation for the leaders of the future." Too few midshipmen ever get to understand that a higher academic bar does exist. They might never choose to attempt it themselves, but they should know what it looks like. Or, as Admiral William Crowe, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in his autobiography, "excellence, intellectual rigor and curiosity are things that all officers should appreciate." By implication, so should all midshipmen.
Lesson Five: Allow Them to Experience Failure
With almost universal admiration, the Academy faculty and administration I interviewed identified a midshipman skill: Ability to focus on what needs to be done to get by in the short run. Some excel at it, achieve high grades, and thrive. Others learn to survive. What virtually none of them get to do—and remain at the Academy—is experience failure, except in the most trivial ways. Plebe year is about the transition from civilian to military life, pressure, and learning to respond to it. It is, as the Commandant put it, "Learning to keep many balls in the air successfully."
In many ways, however, the challenges of Academy life decrease as one progresses. Once a midshipman survives plebe year, the opportunity to fail—and graduate from the Academy—ceases. Learning from failure and preventing its recurrence is a life skill that all midshipmen need to learn and master. The headlines are full of criticism about the military's zero-defects mentality. Whether wittingly or not, the Academy is sending its young officers into the fleet with precisely this mind-set and experience.
The Ivy League has done rather well in promoting responsible risk-taking and tolerating failure by deemphasizing grades—not de-emphasizing excellence or competition. Rather, they encourage students to try courses outside their area of strength without fear that it will hurt their grade-point average and chance of admission to top professional or graduate schools. In contrast, the Academy has an almost ante-deluvian reliance on grades, class standing, and color competition.
If, as a number of officers and midshipmen confided, very few people really care about these metrics, why spend so much time and energy on them? Tradition? Inertia? Public relations implications? Since virtually ever officer I interviewed referred to the zero-sum game of limited time at the Academy as the principal reason why desirable policies and experiences are not added, the lesson seems clear: Get rid of the unimportant stuff, and use that time more wisely.
Lesson Six: Recognize that Cynicism Is a Problem
Recently, I read John Feinstein's marvelous book, A Civil War (New York: Little, Brown, 1996), about a year in the life of the Army-Navy game. I came away from it with a sense that Feinstein had enormous respect and admiration for the midshipmen and cadets; but that he also found the academies to be rather cheerless places. When I interviewed Feinstein, he confirmed my interpretation: "They're great places to be from, but pretty unhappy places to be at," he said.
Virtually every Academy officer I asked said, no, the Academy was not an unhappy place; but they admitted that the midshipmen are tremendously cynical. Cynical about what? Without exception, every midshipman and most of the graduates I spoke with—including the most successful and the most gung-ho—expressed cynicism about many of the regulations and restrictions under which the midshipmen live. While 95% of midshipmen (according to Academy surveys) accept the premise that the Academy should be a "high-pressure, high-stress environment," they learn quickly to distinguish between what is mission-critical and what is not. Whether it is required attendance at "spontaneous" pep rallies or student guards at football games to prevent midshipmen from visiting the stands on the opposite side of the field, they experience and put up with policies that make little sense to them.
That midshipmen are cynical is not surprising; it is just unfortunate. Most can accept the deprivation of liberties their civilian friends take for granted. What they find more difficult to accept is that four years of in-extremis rules are necessary to make them better officers.
More than a few career officers expressed the sentiment that a tough plebe year combined with a more liberalized upperclass experience would have been more valuable. Indeed, when I have suggested higher standards coupled with less "Mickey Mouse," heads begin nodding and suggestions begin flowing.
Perhaps inadvertently, the Commandant lent credence to this thesis. Admiral Roughead shared with me an example of midshipman input into a problem affecting first classmen: how to deal with a shortage of parking spaces. He was extremely pleased with the outcome and cited midshipmen's satisfaction with the result. That should have been a clarion call. What would happen if midshipmen were asked to scrap the reg book and help devise a plan to achieve the Academy's mission and improve morale?
Lesson Seven: Broadcast the Academy's Message
The Academy is tough, and it is not for everyone. But with the cost of an Ivy League education exceeding $100,000, the Academy should have broader appeal to more of the kids who wind up at top private colleges. The Ivies are surprisingly aggressive and fairly sophisticated in their marketing. With the cost of attending on the rise, the selling job they have to do—particularly to parents—is a significant one. The Academy needs to broaden its communication efforts, reaching out to the pockets of the United States—many of them in affluent areas—and "sell" the Academy and the military.
Lesson Eight: Broaden the Admission Pool
One reason the Academy may be misfiring on one cylinder is its use of the Strong Campbell Interest Inventory as part of the selection process. Career counselors long have used this instrument but recognize that it has real limitations. The most significant is that it is weakest when scored and interpreted en masse by a computer. It is most useful when used as an individual consulting tool, precisely the opposite of the way the Academy uses it.
Whether or not the Strong Campbell is an adequate or much-too-relied-upon tool for predicting a candidate's likelihood to stick with a naval career can be debated. What cannot be ignored is the fact that the current selection process is producing a wrong fit 25% of the time.
The lesson the Academy should learn from the Ivy League is not to seek out the "well-rounded" kid. Rather, like the Ivy League, it should broaden its admission pool to create the "well-rounded class"—some super scholars, some athletes, some gung-ho types, and some who will be the "glue of the class," as Harvard puts it.
Will this lead to a higher graduation rate and comparable service retention? Only time will tell. The Academy has the leverage to select from a large, highly qualified pool of applicants. The Time Magazine-Princeton Review guide gives the Academy a "selectivity ranking" of 99, including it among the most selective colleges in the country. In the Ivy League, only Harvard, Yale, and Princeton receive a 99; Cornell gets a 97, and the remaining Ivies score 98. With one out of four midshipmen leaving before they graduate, the Academy needs to experiment.
Lesson Nine: Four Years Might Not Be Enough
The Academy's faculty and administration are both justifiably proud and relatively candid: They would like to improve both the academic experience and the professional training. The question—and it is legitimate—is how to do it in four years. The answer may lie in increasing the Academy program to five years. (One of the most successful Ivy League programs is the combined six-year bachelor's-medical school degree offered at Brown.) While several faculty and administrators expressed a hypothetical desire to increase the length of the Naval Academy experience, it always was accompanied by a sigh and expression of political impossibility. Surprisingly, however, that political impediment is not one that I have heard from any politicians.
The Bottom Line
Can more rigor, broader experiences, and improved morale be wedged into a program that often seems bursting at the seams? Can the energy and creativity that now goes into "beating the system" be channeled into more productive pursuits? Or is the Academy experience truly a zero-sum game? In the current environment—with its reliance on structure and imposed discipline—it probably is. But change any one parameter, adopt any one of the Ivy approaches, and the opportunities for improvement are substantial.
The underlying question is whether it is worth the effort to find out. Perhaps this 1996 reminder from the late Admiral Jeremy Boorda is the most compelling reason why the Academy should consider these reforms seriously: "An organization that does not realize it can improve, is an organization designed to fail."
Changing the way the Academy treats midshipmen—with much of such treatment ingrained in tradition—demands tremendous faith in these young people. I have that faith. I hope Navy leaders have it too.
Mr. Cohen is a Managing Director at Scholastic, the children's book publisher. He also serves as co-chair of the Prescription for Reading Partnership, the White House's early childhood literacy task force. He is the author of four best-selling books, all of which focus on education, and has lectured extensively on campuses from Fordham to Stanford.
What the Ivy League Can Learn
- Bring back ROTC.
- Institute a clear, vital, student-run honor code.
- Seminars and speaker programs on character development should be part of campus life.
- Engage in extensive two-way exchange programs with the service academies.