One morning this summer, when I got back to my room in Bancroft Hall at the Naval Academy after an early uniform inspection, a mouse scurried across the floor. It ran to the other side of the room before disappearing into a crack in the baseboards. Pondering how I would find a ride off the Yard to pick up some traps, I wiped a trickle of sweat from my forehead and made my way to the sink. Our room was balmy and damp, but my roommate, an electrical engineer, had figured out a way to trick the air conditioning to run. Removing a plastic bottle from a makeshift holder on the wall, I filled it with hot water from the tap and placed it back over the thermostat. Sure enough, the ventilation kicked on and a breath of cool air began to seep into the room. I grabbed my bags and went to the nearest head. When I opened the door, I was greeted with an overwhelming stench and a sheen of rank liquid covering the floor.
Such stories are common across the brigade of midshipmen here at the Naval Academy. Bancroft Hall, while impressive from the outside, is a 100+-year old building. Midshipmen have complained of the spartan furnishings and cold atmosphere of the country’s largest dormitory for more than a century, but those grumblings are not what concern me today. When I walk the Hall, I am troubled by the lack of ownership and responsibility the brigade takes for its living spaces. I am worried about the culture of nonchalance my fellow future officers have toward proper cleanliness and maintenance. If sailors treated a Navy ship like the brigade treats Bancroft Hall, it would not be ready for sea.
Pride and Responsibility
During my training cruise on board the destroyer USS Shoup (DDG-86) in Yokosuka, Japan, I was astonished by the pride the crew took in the appearance of their ship, from the most junior sailor to the commanding officer. Every day, every division would turn out for 30 minutes to clean their own spaces and shared areas. Every hand wielded a broom, dustpan, or mop, and the results were apparent. Even the sailors who grumbled were proud of their ship and the way that it was presented to guests.
This was a surprise to me as a midshipman because that kind of attitude and responsibility is not present at the Naval Academy. While it may seem trivial, taking pride in personal and group appearance has long been a cornerstone of the Academy’s officer-creation process. For nearly 170 years, room and zone inspections have been a vigorously enforced part of midshipmen life. Duty officers were often noted to have “a special faculty for looking just where you haven’t dusted” by deficient midshipmen. The expectation in earlier days was to strive for perfection rather than mere sufficiency. Instilling that expectation through the highly visible act of cleanliness was one ingredient that made midshipmen excellent officers, and it is one that is missing today.
The Navy relies on individuals taking responsibility for the shared state of their ship and their workstation. When something as simple as cleanliness falls by the wayside, other critical systems will often be neglected as well. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the combat information center (CIC) on board the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) in 2017. A probe following the ship’s collision found the CIC “trash-strewn” and reeking of urine, with stray weights littering the floor.It is unacceptable for a Navy warship to be anything less than immaculately kept. That expectation should be extended to the home of the Brigade of Midshipmen as well.
Today, a worrying culture of gundecking tasks as simple as room inspections has accumulated inside Bancroft Hall. More rules and regulations will not fix this issue—those that do exist are already disregarded. Instead, the brigade must take ownership of its spaces and take pride in the appearance of Bancroft Hall, during both the academic year and summer months.
The first fleet practice the Academy could consider is “sweepers.” In the past, sweepers was a well-established facet of daily life during plebe summer. Every night, all the company’s plebes retrieved cleaning supplies to mop the passageways and clean the heads. The Academy should consider bringing sweepers back during plebe summer because of its training value and then continue the practice during the academic year. By instilling a sense of pride in cleanliness when plebes are most impressionable, as well as training them on the similar way things are done in the fleet, a culture shift is not out of reach.
A second and more radical shift would be for midshipmen to be responsible for shared spaces. For decades, the Naval Academy has opted to use civilian contractors to clean the common areas of Bancroft Hall. While midshipmen have always been responsible for taking care of their rooms, shared spaces such as passageways and bathrooms are out of their jurisdiction. Midshipmen have taken advantage of this contract service for decades, with one midshipman from 1935 recounting that first classmen (seniors) often “unofficially hire[d] the . . . janitor who sweeps the corridors to take a swipe at [their] room.”This long-standing culture is antithetical to the requirements of shipboard life. Instead, midshipmen should take responsibility for shared spaces and fill in the cracks where contractors fall short. It should be the expectation that midshipman company leaders will work to coordinate the upkeep and maintenance of their company areas, just as a division officer would do for their division’s spaces on a ship.
One way to put this into practice would be to increase the responsibility of duty sections. Currently, the only requirement they have is to meet twice and take muster. Occasionally, a small task will also have to be done, but there is no expectation that the duty section will complete any work. As such, duty at the Academy is treated flippantly; it is seen as something made up to keep midshipmen busy. The Academy should put this underutilized force to work by establishing real tasks for each company’s section to complete. For example, Saturday’s duty section might be responsible for cleaning the company’s heads, while Sunday’s might be expected to clean the stairwells and windows. This would keep the onus on midshipmen to ensure tasks are completed and would mirrors what a duty day looks like in the fleet.
Modeling the upkeep and cleanliness of Bancroft Hall after a Navy ship would better prepare future officers for the fleet, create more opportunities for young leaders to take responsibility, and present a better image of the Naval Academy to guests. Most important, though, it would increase the pride midshipmen have in our school and make us embrace “Mother B” as our home-away-from-home on the shores of the mighty Severn.