In the Supe’s Words

By lex, on February 24th, 2010

VADM Fowler addressed the diversity issue at the US Naval Academy to a receptive audience at recently. His comments helps  illuminate the mindset, and represent as well something of a potential row-back from previous comments that “diversity was the number one goal” at USNA:

Luke Visconti: Why did the U.S. Naval Academy establish diversity goals?

Vice. Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler: I’m not sure it’s a goal, but it’s all about performance, quality.

Well, it used to be the number one goal, but score one for performance and quality – huzzah!

Among other things, he goes on to say this about the admissions process:

Another part of our process, which is different than any other school in the service academy, is the nomination process, which is 435 individual competitive areas. Nationally, [people] compete to get in here, and you have to get a nomination. The nominations, percentage-wise, went up much higher for minorities than they did for majorities because majorities already had nominations. The majority nominations went up maybe 9 percent, while minorities went up by 30-something percent last year. I have nothing to do with nominations—that’s Congress. They’re the ones who did that.

Congressmen get 10 nominations per seat and the Academy chooses among those ten for its most qualified candidates. Not all congressmen use all of their nominations, and some designate primary nominees. If the Academy wanted to get to the number two or three alternate, they had to also accept the primary. It’s certainly possible that congressmen are nominating more folks of various types to fill previously unused slots, but again, it’s the school that’s usually picking from among those nominations. Four hundred and thirty-five congressmen using all 10 of their nominations (let’s leave senatorial, presidential and vice-presidential nominations out for simplicity’s sake) means 4350 candidates to fill a class of a little over a thousand first year midshipmen.

Not all of those who are offered positions by the federally sponsored Academies accept – West Point cadets, USAFA cadets and USNA midshipmen have one thing in common: They were all accepted at West Point – but a significant majority do.

Why do we do we distinguish between candidates for a federally sponsored full-ride scholarship with a guaranteed job at the other end based not upon traditional “whole person” performance in academics, leadership and athletics but upon such rough predictors of future performance as the immutable and indeterminate characteristics of ethnicity?

I think a lot of this is passion and belief.

Oh, so it’s kind of like a religion.

And once we get this diverse student body recruited, nominated and selected, how do we treat them?

Visconti: The environment at the Naval Academy has become much more nurturing. Would you agree?

Vice Adm. Fowler: Yes, and it’s intentional. I think we have the leadership team certainly and I hope it’s worked its ways down to every person that if you’re your best and you want to be here with the talent we have coming in, we can get you commissioned. They struggle, in the physical world, in the academic work, for leadership. But if they keep trying, we keep with them. It is just the most rewarding part about this job watching young 17- and 18-year-olds. They’re 17 when they make the decision to come here and commit to this thing; they have no clue, and then to watch them now as seniors—22, mature, tough, confident.

The academies used to view themselves as crucibles in which the raw metal of talent and aptitude was transformed into keen sword of character. Now we “nurture” tough, confident officer candidates who fail to meet the standards imposed upon fleet sailors so long as they “keep trying.”

But, you know: Sometimes it works –

Here is where it matters. I was over in Italy at a Naval Force, and we were starting some engagement with western Africa to try to increase engagement with security and governance. We had one ship that came down [that] was going to do this. It was just a typical Navy ship; we didn’t know in advance when we were assigning people to that ship that we were going to come to Africa. It pulls into I think it was Senegal, and we’re having this high-level meeting with a captain, an admiral and the president of the country. Well, they spoke an African dialect of French. Sure enough, on the ship was a female whose parents grew up in Africa, immigrated to the U.S. and she spoke the African dialect of French. She sat between the president of the country and our head delegation person. Now, that’s what diversity delivers on the other end. We didn’t predict that. We didn’t hire her for that job, but it just worked.

Lucky us!

To the degree that the Academy can select the very best qualified candidates from all facets of society, I fully support their efforts. If some middle class white kid with an outstanding record misses out on the dream of a life time so that some equally qualified kid from a tough neighborhood gets a shot at a top notch education, well: He’ll probably be all right. But to the extent that standards are compromised – either in selection or retention – not so much.

Senior naval officers are inherently goal oriented, and once the goal becomes “find more top quality candidates from every ethnic group” – in competition with the Ivies and industry that also wants to polish their diversity portfolios – the numbers cart can get ahead of the quality horse. When you abandon or disfavor analytical characteristics such as test scores, academic performance (matrixed against a schools academic performance index), and leadership (clubs, athletics), but you set racial goals, you oughtn’t be surprised when the staffers leverage the fact that the admissions process is inherently sensitive to manipulation.


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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Navy, USNA

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