Tuesday, May 25, 2010

To save the Naval Academy ...

So, if you love something or someone - what is your normal response to the following?

If you find them doing something self-destructive to themselves, injuring the innocent, and degrading everything around them all at the same time - do you;
  1. Help them continue and expand the intensity of their bad behavior.
  2. Tell them that, "What you are doing is wonderful!", and then walk away while hoping that they will fix the problem themselves.
  3. Keep yourself busy, ignore all that is going on, and hope that everything works our best in the end.
  4. Speak up. Call them on it. Challenge them to do better. Offer suggestions to bring them back on the right track?
Well - I would hope that #4 is your answer. Our friend Professor Fleming from USNA had a bit in the NYT last FRI; once again showing that he loves the idea of the institution he serves - you may or may not agree with him, but you have to grant him that.
... the Naval Academy, where I have been a professor for 23 years, has lost its way. The same is true of the other service academies. They are a net loss to the taxpayers who finance them, as well as a huge disappointment to their students, who come expecting reality to match reputation. They need to be fixed or abolished.
Some in the administration have justified the admissions policies on the ground that it “takes all kinds” to be officers. But that’s not really what the academies recruit. They don’t give preference to accomplished cellists or people from religious minorities or cerebral Zen types.

We’ve even given less-qualified students a backdoor into Annapolis — the Naval Academy Preparatory School, our remedial institution in Newport, R.I., for admitted students who are not prepared to enter the academy itself. And if students struggle academically when they get to the academy, our goal is to get them to graduate at whatever cost. Thus we now offer plenty of low-track and remedial courses, and students who fail can often just retake classes until they pass: we have control over their summers and their schedules, and can simply drag them through with tutoring.

I’ve taught low-track English classes; the pace is slower and the papers shorter than in my usual seminars, but the students who complete them get the same credit. When I’ve complained about this, some administrators and midshipmen have argued that academics are irrelevant to being an officer, anyway. Really? Thinking and articulating are irrelevant to being an officer?

The picture I have drawn of the academy is not what most Americans imagine when they come to a parade and see all those clean-cut young men and women standing in nice rows with their chests out (as they will at next week’s graduation ceremony). Some may argue that our abandonment of merit as a criterion for officer status is simply the direction the military overall has taken — the stress of fighting two wars has lowered the bar for enlistment, and R.O.T.C. standards have also declined. But I’d like to think we could do better.

We have two choices. One is to shut down Annapolis, West Point and the other academies, and to rely on R.O.T.C. to provide officers. Or we can embrace the level of excellence we once had and have largely abandoned. This means a single set of high standards for all students in admissions, discipline and academics. If that means downgrading our football team to Division III, so be it.

We also need a renaissance in our culture. We need to get our students on board with the program by explaining our goals and asking for feedback from cadets, graduates and the armed forces at large. Now, we’re just frustrating the students and misleading taxpayers.

Change won’t happen from within. The short-term academy administrations want to keep the hype flowing, and tend to lack the big-picture thinking necessary to seeing the institution objectively. Rather, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and other civilians need to mount a full re-conception of the academies: deciding what do we do that’s wrong, what’s irrelevant and what deserves to be saved. Otherwise, my most promising students will continue to tell me, “Sir, this place shows you what not to do.”
I would argue that we should keep NAPS for what it was designed for - to help prior-Enlisted personnel with a iffy academic background get up on step and not a place to put Redshirt Freshmen - but that is about my only quibble with part of the article. On balance though - hard to argue the other side of his points, isn't it? Give it a shot if you can.

If you don't want - that is OK. Over the weekend, Rajiv Srinivasan - a West Point grad - gave it a shot. Head on over there and give it a read, you will also find Professor Fleming's response. The blogosphere at its best.
UPDATE: Ungh. All around, a bad day for the Navy-Marine Corps team, USNA, and football. From Thomas E. Ricks,
The Marine Corps Times reports that the Marine Corps is ousting 13 new officers who were caught cheating on a land navigation test. Two of them apparently were former Naval Academy football players who lost their moral compasses. I wonder if what they saw at the Academy made them think this is OK.
This is a teachable moment if we want it to be. Navy Aviation has a great tradition of openly talking about and picking apart mishaps and the different factors that contributed to them. Might be a good place to use that template.


Anon said...

There has been talk before about what value the service academies bring over ROTC and othe commissioning sources.  Some of it is drivel and some is spot on.  Like anything we spend money on, the academies need to be providing us with a service or product that justifies their value.  I agree with Prof. Fleming that USNA needs to set its priorities and focus on those. 

And while I agree with his statement about football, getting the Alumni Association and all the budget people to agree will need some assistance from Tony Soprano.

Combat NFO said...

I'm amazed that Professor Fleming is getting all of this attention, although few controversies sell books in military circles better than an insider trashing the Naval Academy.  He understands USNA so well after twenty years that he calls Midshipmen "cadets".  His love for the institution comes through so very clear in his rebuttal, perhaps he didn't think it through enough to hide the real point:

"<span>My point is precisely that our system FAILS to produce enough people like him (refers to Rajiv and West Pointers) to justify its negative side and its cost."</span>

I guess when we see the point he's driving at, we can better understand how and why he constructs his argument:

<span>"The proof is that ROTC officers, who are more than twice as numerous as academy grads, apparently function at the same level as academy grads–there’s literally no difference in speed of advancement between the two pools in the JO ranks."</span>

Now if Professor Fleming understood the Navy's promotion system, he'd know that promotion through the JO ranks is largely dependent on time in grade rather than performance, but that's his "proof", and because of the data, it's hard to argue with.... unless you know how JO's are promoted.

Redeye80 said...

Although I agree with most of Fleming's points, he sounds like a total asshat over at Rajiv's site.  Read his rebuttal:


DeltaBravo said...

Yeah, every once in a while a TBS class at Quantico has to re-invent "that wheel."  Land nav is difficult stuff (or so they say).  Makes one wonder if Boat School brought in people who didn't have the academic chops to succeed anywhere off the gridiron and now it's playing out in predictable fashion.

Are you really doing anyone a favor bringing them on to play football when they really should have been spending all that time learning...say... military skills?  I say if you want to fix Boat School, first get rid of that football garbage.  Go back to playing Harvard or something for a lark.  The service academies are supposed to be teaching critical thinking skills and the kind of knowlege that makes the difference between life and death out on the battlefield. 

And since the indiscretions are always made so public, the criticisms of the schools here can be just as public. 

Heather said...

I've started to give up hope that anything is going to change any time soon at USNA. There's just too many people at the top that believe what they're doing is the solution to the diversity problem. I don't think we'll turn the corner on this until the Boomer generation is out and the Ys come into control.

I am so disappointed in the Marines (as individuals), but glad that the Corps did the right thing. I'd hate to see my dad's love stumble and slide down the slippery slope of remediation with multiple do-overs.

Vlad the Impaler said...

He wasn't just talking about the Naval Academy, he was also talking about West Point. The Army calls their trainee officers cadets. At least in the original article, he makes a long point on the expensive mediocrity that both USNA and West Point have become.

C-dore 14 said...

Since this article was published I've received several copies of it from friends, including one former Marine officer, asking what I thought of it.  Responding to them caused me to revisit all the absurdities of the past year from the color guard situation to Midn Curry and now to the "Greaseless Herndon Climb".  I'm now to the point of wondering whether we'd be better off in adopting a British-style system of an extended OCS for folks who've already received their undergraduate education.

cdrsalamander said...

What is wrong with Liberal Arts?

Greg Finnegan said...

Fleming is YOUR friend, not mine, and I don't have to grant him anything.

He has one goal - a pension.  He teaches a subject which should not need teaching at the college level.

Shut down USNA, cancel his pension, and be done with it.  Yeah, I'm a graduate, but I'm not all sentimental about it.

Anon said...

I'm a lot more worried about ex-football star Adam Ballard being kicked out of the Marine Corps for cheating at TBS than I am about the lack of grease on Herndon.  Yeah, the Herndon thing is a symptom of a larger problem with respect to risk-aversion in the Fleet, but at the end of the day I don't really care if the mids get to climb the greased pole or not.  I do care that the Naval Academy, despite sparing no expense, commissions people who would sacrifice their integrity so casually.  You would think something like this would be the canary in the coal mine.  Instead, we're all focused on Herndon.

Anonymous said...

That is not what I read at all.  The point I thought he was making was that the ability of the students to communicate and articulate themselves has degraded.  Some of this is due to their bending of the admissions criteria.  You can not tell me that a clearly articulated order in the times of "lawfare" is not important.

LT.B has lamented the inability of many of his students to think abstractly and problems solve when he was teaching math.  So it was not just the liberal arts folks making noise.

Therapist 1 said...

My apologies, that was me above.

Anonymous said...

With only 2 out of 13, this is great news for an Academy that represents only 20% of the officer corps.  It should be mud in the eye of ROTC/OCS/etc as they are cheating at higher rates than should be expected.

A truly stupid data point that is in line with the mindlessness of Ricks' critique.  Criticize all you want, but let's have some consistency and intelligence.

cdrsalamander said...

Hey, at least he is engaged in the private sector generating tax dollars.  A lot more than can be said for many.

UltimaRatioRegis said...

Holy crap.  Phib, I need my pills.  First, you and I have common ground on DADT, and now, I actually agree with a comment from CNFO.  I will watch for the sunset in the east later on today.....

Combat NFO said...

Yeah, he's doing it to generate tax dollars.  He's so selfless.  When he donates the profits to the USO, or the Navy Marine Corps Relief, or some other charity I'll believe he's writing for altruistic reasons.

UltimaRatioRegis said...

CNFO, why, after making a well-thought and defensible point, you turn into Bill Ayers and act as if working for financial gain is tantamount to eating puppies? 

Nobody said it was purely altruism, but it is highly likely that his message is driven by genuine concern for what he sees as future Naval leadership.

Skippy-san said...

Actually its not true that Liberal Arts Colleges don't teach engineering-my beloved alma mater has one of the finest Civil Engineering Departments in the country.

The better question to ask is what does the Naval Academy need to provide a foundation in that the Navy does not teach you well later on? The Navy made me major in Mathematics. In 20 years of flying I never used anything higher than checkbook mathematics. As far as the technical requirements learning navigation, radar, ew, ESM, and aircraft systems etc-the Navy did a pretty good job of teaching me what I needed to know. What the Navy does not do well, however, is teach folks: 1) How to write and convey ideas ( In some other form than a PPT), 2) provide language training and 3) provide the historical and cultural background to understand the various regions and peoples we operate in and with.

The USNA could learn a lot from VMI-they have a rigorous program still. Citadel can't figure out if it wants the same rigor as VMI or if it wants to be more like USNA. Sadly I fear they want to be the latter.

Combat NFO said...

How was the Aerospace Engineering Department, Systems Engineering Department, Electrical Engineering Department, Naval Architecture Department?  Did they have one?  

Civil Engineering sounds handy for Sea Bees, what about everyone else?  You calculated glide slope, fuel flow rates, thrust, mass flow, and weapon settings using check book math?  You must have a fancy check book.  Frankly it isn't about the day to day calculations, it's about understanding what's going on with the systems, not just regurgitating what you've been told.  

Yes, History majors can fly a plane, but an Aerospace Engineer understands the LEX fence on the Hornet and the associated vortex impact on the vert stab in a way the english major won't.  If you want Professor Fleming to do your Vmin calculations, I hope you're flying single seat.  Some of those graphs are kinda confusing.

Combat NFO said...

Like I said.  Let me know when he donates the profits and I'll believe it's something more than self aggrandizing.

cdrsalamander said...

Blog owner notice.  More than once today, 4 of 5 comments have been from you.  You are doing the commenting version of yelling loudly, interrupting too much, not giving others a chance to digest the direction of the conversation, and generally trying to dominate the conversation.  When a commenter does that, in addition to being rude - it drives people away from the blog and makes the owner grumpy.  You are more than welcome here - you just can't be 4/5 of the conversation.

If you really have that much to say, start your own blog.

Consider this  a warning.  Strike 1.  

C-dore 14 said...

Maybe one of you Marines or Army types can explain to me what's so difficult about land navigation that it would put someone in a position where they'd need to cheat to get the minimum passing grade ("If it wasn't good enough, it wouldn't be the minimum").  I learned basic map reading, compass use, and land navigation as a Boy Scout, in military school, and as a midshipman and I don't remember it being all that difficult.  

BTW, I wasn't a technical guy either.

MR T's Haircut said...

like Blumenthall, saying when "we came home from Vietnam"?

UltimaRatioRegis said...

It isn't.  Not at TBS anyway.  Wasn't at 29 palms or Pendleton or Lejeune, or Okinawa or any place else I have been. 

Redeye80 said...

It is not difficult.  The test as I remember was more than a pain in the a$$ than a test of knowledge. 

I guess I am old school but you need to learn and understand the basics before you can play with all the high tech toys.  Over reliance on GPS is our weak link in the chain.

Just my pocket change,

Anon said...

<span><span>First, it was Kyle Eckel (</span></span>  
<span><span><span><span><span>http://www.leatherneck.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-37213.html</span></span></span><span><span></span></span></span><span></span></span><span><span>), then it was </span></span><span><span>Marcus Curry (</span></span><span></span><span><span><span><span><span>http://blog.usnavyseals.com/2010/05/usna-star-football-player-marcus-curry-dismissed.html</span></span></span><span><span></span></span></span><span></span></span>) ..... and now in the middle of two wars, Adam Ballard is designing premeditated excuses to get out of his commitment - i<span><span>t's gross <span>cowardice</span>, plain and simple.  What would Zembiec say?</span></span>