Task force among options being weighed as Naval Academy addresses its troubles

April 18, 1996|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

With the Naval Academy in a weeklong stand-down amid a rash of alleged wrongdoing, there is growing sentiment for the same kind of special panel used to force changes after the cheating scandal two years ago.

The academy's Board of Visitors, a 12-member advisory committee appointed by Congress and the White House, has called a meeting for next month to debate whether to appoint a task force to recommend changes. Others are calling for an alumni panel.

Navy Secretary John H. Dalton and Adm. Jeremy Boorda, the chief of naval operations, are expected to consult this week with the academy's superintendent, Adm. Charles R. Larson, about a possible task force or other options.

"I think the board will see if there's a need to do anything differently," said retired Rear Adm. Benjamin F. Montoya, chairman of the Board of Visitors, who graduated from the academy in 1958 with Admiral Larson. "Certainly, what Admiral Larson has started hasn't had time to germinate and take hold. I don't want to rush to judgment too quickly."

After two weeks during which midshipmen were charged with sexual assault and child abuse, car theft, burglary and petty theft, some alumni were upset at the beating the academy's reputation is taking.

"The alumni are furious, let me tell you," said Jeffrey E. McFadden, a lawyer and 1979 academy graduate who served on the 1994 Armitage committee that reviewed the honor system. "Their loyalty is to the institution."

Mr. McFadden said the academy must return to its basic function of creating honorable and ethical officers, and that it should tighten its screening, revamp the leadership department, expel troublemakers and deal harshly with sexism, racial bigotry and drinking.

"The problem is bigger than Chuck Larson," Mr. McFadden said. "It's a systemic problem, at least 30 years old. The place needs a total transfusion."

Mr. Montoya said changes might be needed in the freshmen -- or plebe -- year. Many academy alumni say their class had the last "real" plebe year and that ensuing classes had it easier in the first year.

"Maybe the first year has to be tougher so those who don't want to lead the life will leave," Mr. Montoya said.

Chase Untermeyer, a former Board of Visitors chairman who is leaving the board after two years, said the admissions process ++ also has to be reviewed.

"Institutions cannot rise above the quality of the people they have," said Mr. Untermeyer, a former naval officer who was assistant secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration. That is a "deeper and more difficult problem to address" than quick changes in curriculum or training, he said.

"All of us are quite frankly perplexed by this," U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican who is a board member, said )) of the recent problems at the academy. "I don't know if it's a sign of the times."

Mr. Gilchrest said some sort of task force might be necessary but that the academy's operation and its future rest with Admiral Larson. "The superintendent has to run that ship. He has to be free to run that ship," said the congressman, a former Marine who is a decorated Vietnam veteran.

Tuesday, Admiral Larson ordered an apparently unprecedented weeklong academy stand-down that cancels all liberty privileges for junior and senior midshipmen. Company officers are to use the time to focus on "responsibility and performance."

"Clearly, the stand-down will give the midshipmen and the faculty an opportunity to be introspective," said Richard L. Armitage, an academy graduate and former State Department official who was chairman of the 1994 review of the honor concept. "Whether they take advantage of that is something we'll have to see."

Admiral Larson commanded all U.S. forces in the Pacific before he arrived at the Naval Academy in 1994, in the wake of the cheating scandal. He has received high marks from the Board of Visitors for tightening privileges and revamping ethics instruction.

The superintendent also deserves credit for trying to give seniors a greater leadership role in the brigade, Mr. Montoya said.

Pub Date: 4/18/96

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