The recent SITREP SEVERN blowup—the embarrassing video posted on YouTube by two midshipmen of color acting goofy and dumb (kindest description)-- has produced a response from the USNA PAO that reveals the inner workings of the hype factory the Naval Academy has become now that “diversity is our #1 goal” (CNO) and we want to play football with schools whose students don’t even have to graduate, much less be military officers. The defensible and indeed honorable thread of this “Midshipman USNA Social and Internet Media Guidance” is the good point that “USNA midshipmen must always remember that they represent those Sailors and Marines on active duty as well as those veterans and alumni who have served our nation honorably.” It’s morale-busting, in my translation, for the enlisted folks to know their officers are doofuses.
But the not-so-defensible thread of the “Guidance” is sheer fright that the truth will come out about the mixed bag that is the student body at the current US Naval Academy. Yes, our highs are high (Rhodes Scholars etc.) but the lows are even lower (300s on SAT, many failed USNA courses—typical of some of t the football players with the highest level of national hype) and the average is not particularly impressive. “The underlying intent of this guidance [huh? says the English prof; intent of a guidance?] is that participants not discredit themselves, the Naval Academy, or the naval service.” Not discredit the Naval Academy—it’s right there as a major goal. What this means is, keep the hype flowing: don’t show the taxpayers, who pay $377,000 for each student (these figures from the USNA PAO office), or the sailors and Marines you will be leading, just how incompetent you really are, because then they’d ask difficult questions like this: Why is it we keep the academies when they’ve become so dysfunctional and produce officers no better than the much cheaper ROTC option (1/4 as expensive on average)? THESE MIDSHIPMEN ARE GOING TO LEAD TROOPS???
Unfortunately the students in the video are more representative of the average midshipman that most people even dare think. Academically, on an average (i.e. I don’t mean the top 20% here), midshipmen are no great shakes. The last official class profile (put out by the PAO’s office) that even mentioned SAT scores was for the Class of 2012. It revealed that almost 1/3 (30%) of the overall class (all colors, recruited athletes included) was below 600 in verbal ability, and almost 1/5 (18%) in math. (For the Class of 2003, the % under 600 were 26 math, 14 verbal, so we’ve let these slide as minority recruitment has ramped up in the last decade.) The Profile for the class of 2013 gave up on absolute SAT score numbers, and compared only black scores to black scores and Hispanic to Hispanic: “African Americans average top 6% for all college bound African American Students.; Caucasians average top 11% for all college bound Caucasian students” (in my world ‘college-bound’ is written with a hyphen, says the English prof.). So actually the black students are smarter than the white, right? What they don’t tell you is that the black average is 100 pts lower on each SAT part, ca 430 vs 530, and almost no blacks score in the 700s, so top 6% average is still in the low 500s. And low to mid-600s SAT scores, which is the white USNA (and USMA) average, are about on par with Pepperdine University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, or Gettysburg College.
These are solid schools, but the hype surrounding USNA insists that all our students turned down the Ivy League—whose average SAT scores are low 700s. For minorities we’ve basically given up on SAT scores. A FOIA request by USNA grad Dave Quint analyzed in this column revealed that 75% of midshipmen of color got SAT scores below 600, vs. 25% of white midshipmen. Actually 600 is supposed to be our cut-off for white midshipmen too, but of course we have to staff the teams, or think we do, and want them to win over major state universities with no pretenses to standards and no stake in what their graduates become—if they graduate.
Did midshipmen at least do well in high school? The Profile for the classes of 2013 and 2014 found bragging rights in saying that 91% of the class was in the top 40% of their high school class—i.e. that about 500 midshipmen Academy-wide were at the halfway point of their HS classes or below. (Many of the numbers for the classes of 2013 1nd 2014 were suspiciously identical.) You don’t have to be very bright or work very hard to be, say, 1/3 of the way down the pack at most American high schools these days.
So if we don’t have smarter students than Gettysburg or RPI, at least we have leaders, right? Well, look at the video. Talk to the students off the record. That’s just what the Public Affairs office wants to make sure you don’t do. For recruits, sports or racial, leadership plays no role whatsoever. And minorities are above 1/3 of the class. It’s still true that the competitive white students (about half the class) have to show some high school leadership positions to get a decent Whole Person Multiple (disregarded for athletes and minorities). And we do recommend an interview with a Blue and Gold officer, but it’s not mandatory, it’s not scored, and even a negative report won’t keep you out. And (to put it mildly) not all the competitive white students are charismatic studs: things like geography and connections play a role in admissions too. My summary of 24 years teaching here is that 20% of midshipmen show the kind of leadership charisma that outsiders think is typical of closer to l00%. If you can’t see them when they’re being real, how will you ever know?
No, Professor Fleming does NOT believe that “only academics matter” (a frequent charge). But the proof that we have a special kind of student cannot be based on circular reasoning: that they’re here at USNA. Sure they put up with nonsense other college students don’t, have demands made on their time that other college students don’t, suffer a loss of liberty other college students don’t. Does this mean they alone possess a quality other college students don’t? No. All it means is that they tolerate “noise” with no proven officer-building qualities. (ROTC officers are more prevalent in the fleet by a factor of two, apparently just as good, and didn’t have to do come-arounds.) To repeat: it’s circular to say that the proof that USNA officers-to-be are better/more disciplined/better leaders/have more oomph than whatever your comparison group is (ROTC, OCS officers, normal college students), is that they are at USNA. Don’t just point to what we do: justify it. In fact, a lot of it can’t be justified at all, and much of it is actually negative, the trash of decades. We have to begin scraping off the barnacles to see if we still have a serviceable hull left.
Still, the rest of the world seems to buy the hype. USNA is the school that high school guidance counselors think the most of, according to US News. Not Harvard, or Oberlin. USNA. And even the overall rank of 16 in the US News lineup isn't bad (my own alma mater, Haverford, is “only” #9).
A lot of this is the hype machine working: a large % of the USNA ranking is “prestige,” i.e. if we can convince the world we’re hot stuff and they buy it, they say it back to us. And some of it is the inflated numbers for applications that make us look wildly selective. These are more hype. When I was on the Admissions Board in 2003, we voted on only about 2K applications for about 1200 slots. I asked where the other 8K were—at that point they were claiming a 10/1 ratio for applications (a high ratio also gives us US News ranking points). A too-candid LCDR said, “that’s not completed applications, that’s initiated applications—can be by kids of any age.”
Data for the Class of 2003 (not available for any more recent class, surely not accident: these profiles have become less and less informative as the years have gone on) listed 10,145 applications of which 1,814 were qualified, and 1,511 were admitted for a class of 1,232. For the class of 2014 we got the same 10K non-minority applications, and half again as many of minority applications alone, for a total of about 15K. (US News still lists a 10% acceptance rate.)Remember: a vote of “qualified” requires merely B grades (not hard to get at public HS these days), and 600 SAT minimum (lower for minorities), which is nationally in the upper 70s%. If only 18% of your applicants—class of 2003-- got that, the either a) they weren’t real applications or b) the applicant level is abysmal. We’ve shown we can get people to apply (or initiate applications) by getting 5K minorities to do so in the last year or so (a huge upswing). What’s gained by trolling for unqualified applications? Or maybe the LCDR was right; they aren’t real applications. The reality is that not even twice as many people who are capable of meeting even our newly-lowered standards apply to USNA as get in. I’m sure that Harvard could fill three or four other comparable classes with the kids they reject. We can’t.
Why does the truth about the Academies matter? To begin with, they’re paid for by taxpayer money. And if we insist that they’re perfect as they are, we’ll never be able to improve them. Most fundamentally, if we mistake seeming to be a competent officer for being a competent officer (or officer-in-training) we endanger the lives of our troops. There are advantages to USNA: small classes, focus on military mission, a few truly motivated midshipmen. All this is being compromised by the fact that the place has lost sense of its real mission. I’m speaking here for the small number of stud-hot motivated hell-hound midshipmen I have the joy to be around: they’re the most disillusioned of all. We need some truth around here so we can focus on what USNA could be—and will never achieve so long as the hype keeps coming.
Looking good should not be our top priority, though the PAO’s “Guidance” shows the uncomfortable fact that it has become so.