Monday, October 26, 2009

An agonizing "fix" for an imaginary problem

Professor Bruce Fleming is an English Professor at the United States Naval Academy. No stranger to our regular readers, I have offered Professor Fleming the opportunity to guest post here concerning the latest developments in his almost one-professor struggle for equality and fair treatment at Annapolis (my description). His latest post follows.
---- Phib

Making "diversity our number one priority" in the Navy, as the CNO Admiral Gary Roughead has it, has negative side effects both at the Naval Academy and in the fleet.

Midshipmen at Annapolis tell me that an insistence on accepting and keeping midshipmen primarily because of their race or of other factors irrelevant to future officer capability, such as their role as recruited athletes, has corrupted the honor system. Offenders are retained despite clear honor violations, athletes with repeated offenses are simply not adjudicated (they have to play Ohio State, after all), and everyone is "remediated" nowadays rather than being shown the door at this taxpayer-supported institution whose sole purpose is to produce officers to defend those taxpayers. From my side of the house, I can attest that it has led to a vast academic underworld of remedial pre-college courses, dumbed-down regular courses, and lowered expectations in the classroom where professors can cover less, and that less intensively, to allow all to more or less keep up.

But Annapolis is merely the showcase of the Navy, it's not the fleet. It's only 4,000 midshipmen, after all. The real problem is forcing skin-color-based policies on the men and women in the fleet.

The push to getting people with non-white skins in positions of authority is, as the CNO says, his number one priority. Certainly the "Diversity Policy" of 2008, analyzed below, makes this clear. So it's already trickled down pretty far before it is instituted at Annapolis: though the current Superintendent of the Naval Academy has made this his signature issue (it's certain he'll defend the issue to defend his tenure as Superintendent), he didn't invent it. He's just repeating what the higher-ups say, and the problems at Annapolis are just the more public version of the comparable problems in the fleet.

It all seems to be coming from the top, as if the brass had all gotten together in a smoke-filled room and cooked up an "issue" to push. What'll it be this year, boys?

It goes higher than Annapolis. It goes higher than the CNO.
The emphasis on non-white officers--which means, practically speaking, promoting with a heavy thumb on the scale for non-whites as well as admitting candidates to Annapolis and the other academies along two tracks--is a priority of the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen. His "talking point" is quoted at the beginning of the 2008 Diversity Presentation PowerPoint of the Naval Academy: "I'm telling our leaders that I expect them to figure out a way to make diversity in all your lives, all your organizations. Diversity is a leadership issue, and everyone is a leader."

It's as unclear what this means as is the "Diversity Policy" of the CNO, Admiral Roughhead--to which momentarily.

There's nothing more agonizing to those in uniform than feeling the latest faddish social experiment with no clear benefit and lots of clear negatives be shoved down their throats, and be unable legally even to moan in agony. That's what we have now. So it's a double whammy: we're promoting people--yes, officers who will have the lives of enlisted personnel to shepherd--based on skin color rather than competence, and we're embittering practically everybody else, which impacts morale. Since the purpose of the military is to be an effective defense of all taxpayers, I'd say those negatives would require a huge positive to offset them, be responding to a life-threatening problem. The problem is, nobody has shown there is a problem that's being addressed.

This obsession with getting non-whites into the officer corps is coming from the very top: the least the brass could do is convince us that there's reason to make this priority number one. The best I've seen are statistics show that the current corps is about 20% non-white, whereas the enlisted corps is about 40% non-white. Yes? And what's the problem? Are you saying that a non-white enlisted person, say a black male, needs an incompetent Asian female officer for his morale? Me, I'd say he'd probably rather have a competent one of any persuasion--and I'd bet he'd rather have male, if it comes to that. But we'd sooner give him the Hispanic female than a white officer of either gender. Has he said he wants this? No. The brass have said he does. From what I hear, this is not the case: enlisted personnel are savvy enough to sniff out fakery and incompetence a mile away. They just want the best officers devoted to the mission and their safety. Skin color does not, from what I hear, play a large role with the enlisted corps in 2009.

Yet it's topic A with the gerontocratic brass who are beating the drum for panic-stricken measures to ensure "diversity," both at Annapolis and in the fleet.

The brass presented amicus briefs in the Supreme COurt Case of 2003 involving the University of Michigan, where the question was, how much preference could U of M give non-white students? The court held they could not run two-track admissions with radically lowered standards for African-Americans--which is precisely what we do at Annapolis. The military wanted them to be able to do this. However it's interesting that these amicus briefs seemed to come from a time warp: repeatedly invoking scenarios from Vietnam and the l960s, they insisted that non-white enlisted personnel needed to have or at least see non-white officers.

But this isn't Vietnam (unless Iraq and Afghanistan are becoming so); it certainly isn't the racially tense l960s; and everybody in the military is there because he or she said he or she wanted to be. So who says we have a problem? Prove to us first that we have one.

Then prove to us that the way this is being addressed is the best way.The ham-fisted way in which "diversity" (which means only skin color) is being rammed down the throats of the men and women of the US Armed Forces by the higher-ups is a major source of lowered morale. It's sometimes possible that "solutions" are worse than the problem they're meant to address: much of l9th century medicine, such as bleeding patients to let out the "humors" in the blood, made the patients worse rather than better. But the problem with this problem is, THERE IS NO CLEAR EVIDENCE IT IS A PROBLEM.

And the response that's being mandated from above is extreme.
Annapolis is the easiest place in the Navy to see just how extreme. Here's case one: a non-white applicant with SAT scores of 400 on each part, Bs and Cs, and no particular leadership, will be given a seat at Annapolis after a year at our remedial school NAPS, a federal institution whose student body is predominantly minority, with the rest made of prior-enlisted and recruited athletes. Here's case two: a white applicant with 580/580, Bs with two Cs after his sophomore year, and some sports, will almost certainly be rejected from Annapolis, and never considered for the remedial school. A non-white applicant to the Naval Academy with the same predictors of officer potential (we count athletics, academics, and leadership positions in arriving at a "Whole Person Multiple") will certainly be offered direct admission to Annapolis, bypassing a byzantine system involving nominations that turns away many more qualified white applicants.

In the fleet, it's harder to quantify the weight of the thumb on the scale that add race to the equation. Still, to judge from the flood of agonized e-mails in my box, it is a major source of anguish among white officers who feel they're working for a corrupt system rather than the merit-based honor-bound one they thought themselves a part of. It's also a source of pain for non-whites who feel the're being promoted for their skin color rather than their merits. (I've had non-white students complain bitterly to me about how they're considered first for their skin color and only later for their capabilities.) Worst of all is the anguish of the enlisted, who (I have heard repeatedly) don't care what color their commanding officer is so long as s/he is good.

Military people cannot legally publicly disagree with the decisions of their superiors. They suck it up. But those in the military typically also have a very intense sense of injustice: many believed the military to be the last real meritocracy. Race-based promotion schemes have produced an embittered officer corps and a rudderless enlisted corps, as they see that their lives depend on someone who was promoted because of his or her skin color and not based on competence. So it has clear negatives, huge ones--which those suffering cannot even legally bring to the attention of the public. What are its benefits? That's what we're still waiting to hear.

The Naval Academy has engaged in this blatant race-tracking for years, but never with any justification. Then in March of 2008 the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) issued a “diversity policy” that has been cited repeatedly when “affirmative action”—what the French call “positive discrimination” (clearly illegal under the U.S. Constitution, as is any kind of discrimination)—is questioned. (Legally of course the CNO can’t reverse the Supreme Court’s decision.) That black and Hispanic officers are promoted just to get them promoted can be disputed; similarly it can be disputed that black and Hispanic midshipmen are handled with kid gloves—though most midshipmen have many examples that appear to show they are. That minority applicants are admitted to the Naval Academy and hence into its officer-training program using far lower criteria than white applicants and displace many other higher qualified (though not minority) applicants, cannot. Yet a vague wave towards the “Diversity Policy” is nowadays all that’s necessary to silence most questions.

The document signed by the CNO is unexceptionable, and raises no eyebrows. Of course not: this is the written form of the intent, which here is being kept purposely bland: this could be easily challenged in court. The question then becomes, how is it understood and put into practice? Similarly, when I was on the Admissions Board, we were told not to write anything down: “everything is “foi”able”—can be demanded under the Freedom of Information Act. To my knowledge there are no written directives that spell out the divisions I’ve outlined here of 600 SAT minimum for white students (some wiggle room if the student was hugely good in something else, or had much higher SAT scores on the other part), ca 540-530 SAT for Annapolis direct for set-asides, and the floor was the limit, down to about 380, for NAPS direct for set-asides. In the military, much is in the lifting of an eyebrow, the tone of voice: you’re supposed to want to please your superior.

The written document begins as follows: “Diversity has made our Nation and Navy stronger. To derive the most from that diversity, every individual, military or civilian, must be encouraged and enabled to reach his or her full potential.” It gets a bit surprising in the next sentence: “They must be inspired and empowered to attain the most senior levels of leadership.” All of them? What’s a bit unsettling is this notion of “empowering” “every individual” to “attain the most senior levels of leadership.” Everybody gets to be an admiral? Things are bit clearer when we consider that “every individual” is used in the context of speaking of “diversity.” This suggests that the Navy is going to promote “diverse” people, “empower” them to “attain the most senior levels.” Or does this only mean enabling this person “to reach his or her full potential.” Don’t we do that with everyone already? Things get a little clearer toward the end. “As leaders, we must anticipate and embrace the demographic changes of tomorrow, and build a Navy that reflects our Country’s make up (sic).” Someone from Mars reading this document would be forgiven for not understanding what sense of makeup the Admiral is referring to in speaking of “the demographic changes of tomorrow”: getting older sailors as the population ages? More Floridians (say) as population shifts there?

Much clearer is the more informal commentary the CNO provided for the official news article announcing the policy. In his informal comments, the CNO makes clear that he’s talking about skin color. These comments are interesting for other reasons too. They offer a good example of the personal nature of command in the military. In addition, they’re a good example of the way the military works as a monopoly structure: instead of justifying why the precise measures taken fulfill goals better than other means that could be taken, or that others propose, it asserts that what it does is achieving the goals. We produce widgets, or, like the GDR, other manufactured goods. We don’t look at the quality of what we do as compared to other options. The way things are is the only way they can be.

Here’s the personal nature of command, as seen in the CNO’s comments: “The purpose of this policy is to ensure that everyone in the Navy understands how I feel about diversity. I believe that…” and so on. The striking aspect here is the “feel” and the “believe.” Only an intensely personalized institution would think an official statement of policy would contain as its sole justification the feelings and beliefs of the person issuing it: l’etat, c’est moi. His last quote is as follows: “Most importantly, the Navy must reflect the face of the nation. When the nation looks at its Navy, it should see itself reflected back.”
This is personalized in justification, and personalized in intention: “I want our Navy’s leaders to internalize this policy and demonstrate a personal commitment to attract young men and women to the Navy, and compel them to stay Navy.” Compel? Perhaps the Admiral meant “impel.” And it’s clear that he doesn’t mean any young men and women. He means young men and women somehow related to “diversity.”

Or does he in fact mean “compel”? This would jibe with the notion that we can “empower” individuals “to attain the most senior levels of leadership.” Suddenly we have a reason why black and Hispanic students at the Naval Academy are repeatedly “retained,” not flunked out, by Academic Boards that consider their failing and unsatisfactory grades. The decision has been made to compel them to remain: they will be officers, at any price. And, it may be, they will be “empowered” “to attain the most senior levels of leadership.” Will all individuals?

The CNO says he wants the nation to see itself “reflected back” in its Navy—for the Navy to reflect “the face of the nation.” What this means is still a bit unclear, though it’s more substantial than the “diversity policy” itself. That people with one nose and two eyes should see a Navy whose members has a nose and two eyes? That’s fairly easy to achieve. Why the face? For starters, we don’t want the overweight bodies of the nation to see these reflected in overweight bodies of sailors. We don’t want people in wheelchairs to see sailors in wheelchairs, unless they got that way from battle. We don’t want violinists to see violinists, or first-grade teachers to see first-grade teachers—so the reflection won’t be perfect. In fact it’s unclear how those not in the military can see themselves “reflected” in those in the military. So apparently he really means, just the face. Is everyone that young? Does everyone have short hair? (Or is this getting away from the face?)
How about what’s behind the face? Will those in the military have skills or capabilities that those in the outside world don’t? Or is the military just a microcosm of all jobs and capabilities?

But fine. We get it. Clearly the CNO means skin color. So now the horse-trading starts. Is it legal to make only skin color the decider? What do you give up if you do? Are there any side-effects? What about when you “compel” less qualified candidates to become officers while rejecting the ones that according to your own predictors would have been more effective? Do you calculate the price you pay when these officers have to make decisions?

This is the demand for justification and comparison that inevitably happens in a non-monopoly situation. In the military, none of it happens. We decide what we’re going to do, keep it secret if possible and in any case “inside the walls,” as the military says. We assert loudly that what we do is serving the policy, and that’s the end of the story. Demurring or discussing shows that “leaders” have not in fact managed to “internalize this policy,” which presumably will call forth more feelings and beliefs from the top office. (The news story on the USNA internal web site also underlines that “leadership,” whatever this is—apparently expressing feelings you demand others “internalize”—is the currency of the military. The article’s author summarizes the diversity policy as follows: “Leadership is the foundation upon which the Navy is built and has served as the cornerstone of success for the organization since its inception.”)

The Superintendent of the Naval Academy issued from his bully pulpit a “
Letter to Alumni” in October, 2009. In it he waxes lyrical about his commitment to “diversity” and all but chokes up at how wonderful it is to see non-whites stepping up to “serve,” presumably by accepting the seats kept warm for them at the almost $500,000 per person guaranteed-employment education, room, and board elite institution, the U.S. Naval Academy. Many other people eager to “serve” were denied the opportunity in order to make sure that these non-whites, many of whom had never thought of “serving” by accepting all this taxpayer largesse, were given the opportunity.

It all made me wonder how ticket holders to the New York Philharmonic would react if the orchestra suddenly announced its commitment to allowing, say, really short people—clearly under-represented in the orchestra, to be offered the opportunity to play. Thus, instead of auditions taking place, as now, behind a screen—so what counts is how you play the violin or oboe, they’d start with a height measurement. That way we could offer the egregiously short musicians the “opportunity” we are offering people with a certain skin color to “serve” at Annapolis.

If opportunity means guaranteed winning—i.e. a place in the scarce lottery of service academies places—then yes, we only offer opportunity when we direct-admit based on skin color, lower predictors shrugged off, and disregarding the fact that that place was denied to someone of markedly better predictors. Annapolis, and the other service academies, exist to produce officers to defend the taxpayers who finance their preparation. If we simply say, “taxpayers be damned,” in the same way we’d say “audience be damned” by taking violinists based on their height rather than on the way they play the violin, then it all makes sense. That’s what the CNO and the Superintendent of the US Naval Academy are saying: we don’t care about making the best officers to defend you. “Diversity” is our number one priority.

Taxpayers ought to demand that the bums be thrown out.

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