From the Deckplates - Shake Things Up on the Yard

By Senior Chief Jim Murphy, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Naval Academy leadership has changed little over the past several generations, and significant progress will not occur by perpetuating old strategies. One area the secretary should consider changing is selection criteria for the Superintendent. This is not a criticism of the current Supe or his predecessors, but changing the type of leader selected to head the Academy would be appropriate.

For the past 134 years, the Naval Academy Superintendent has been a male graduate of the institution. Neither of those traits is a qualification, but both have been shared by the past 51 Supes since November 1881. Assigning an otherwise qualified leader with a different background would lead to change throughout the Academy.

Graduating from the Naval Academy should not be a discriminator for selection as Superintendent. The Navy benefits from a number of qualified flag officers who graduated from civilian educational institutions and a growing population of female admirals. Additionally, the Marine Corps has officers with similar backgrounds, and a Marine general could, and occasionally should, lead the brigade, faculty, and staff.

The services also have a number of flag and general officers with experience in education and training. For example, Rear Admiral Martha Herb is not an Academy graduate but is a warfare-qualified doctor of education. A reservist, she has relevant experience as the current Director of the Inter-American Defense College. She is but one example of a leader that would signify revolutionary change in Academy leadership; no specific recommendation should be inferred.

There are likely similar candidates. If not, that itself is a problem. The services routinely educate officers in specialties such as engineering, strategy, finance, and logistics. Education and training are no less important to fulfilling statutory responsibilities, and some number of officers should be afforded opportunities to develop appropriate knowledge and experience.

A proven leader qualified in a warfare discipline and with a background in the science of learning would seemingly make a great Superintendent. Although the academic dean and others in his department are experienced educators, there would be no harm, and potentially great benefit, in the leader of an educational institution having similar qualifications. And it does not matter where he or she earned their undergraduate degree, or whether they have served as a sailor or Marine.

An honest look at recent history and the requirements of the modern services will show that a diversity of educational background and leadership experience among those who lead the Naval Academy is needed. Change like that requires a catalyst. Secretary Mabus is a catalyst elsewhere, and if he is willing to break tradition in Annapolis, he could deliver academic and leadership-development changes that midshipmen and the naval services desire and deserve.

The preceding statements are heretical to many. In the June Proceedings , retired Coast Guard Captain R. B. Watts wrote, “The time for heresy is now.” While he was “Advocating Naval Heresy” in our thinking about threats, strategies, and platforms, a broader application is appropriate and may be necessary to impact the areas he highlighted.

Routinely assigning the same type of leaders to the Naval Academy is not a recipe for driving significant and positive change. A diversity of educational background, operational experience, and chosen service would be. Assigning a non-graduate, a woman, or a Marine would be revolutionary. When the time comes, selection of the next Superintendent will present an opportunity to shake things up on the Yard.

Senior Chief Murphy retired from the Navy after 21 years of service. His June 2012 Proceedings column, “ Bring Back Humility ,” was included in the recently published Naval Leadership , a volume in the U.S. Naval Institute Wheel Book series.


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