The U.S. Naval Academy: standards of excellence

July 18, 1996|By Charles R. Larson

ANNAPOLIS -- The U.S. Naval Academy is a national resource of distinctive character and excellence, referred to by many as a ''national treasure.'' For 151 years, it has produced great leaders in all walks of life. Its 63,000 graduates include thousands of admirals and generals, one president, 73 Medal of Honor recipients, one Nobel Prize winner, 46 astronauts and 32 Rhodes scholars.

When we compare the current classes of midshipmen to those of the 1950s, we find something that is not unexpected. Midshipmen, although still the best and brightest our country has to offer, remain a reflection of our society. But society has changed and the Naval Academy must adapt accordingly. As our society continues to witness a decline in its moral and value structure, our job presents new challenges.

Cannot shirk

Nonetheless, the American people expect us to continue to develop midshipmen with the highest standards of integrity, character and leadership. In today's world that objective becomes both more important and more difficult. Yet it is a responsibility we cannot shirk.

To address some of the challenges presented by societal changes, the academy has made some significant changes over the past two years.

One initiative is a Character Development Program. It starts when plebes arrive for their first summer and continues through the last semester of senior year. It addresses the moral and ethical development of our future naval leaders, acknowledging that we must make as great an effort to achieve moral excellence as we do to achieve academic or physical excellence.

Our future leaders must go beyond not lying, cheating or stealing. We need to develop them with strong ethical skills, the personal integrity to discern right from wrong, and the courage act accordingly and do what is right. This kind of integrity is imperative for naval leaders, and they need to learn it here and now.

Response to our Character Development Program has been superb. Two donors provided us with funding for an ethics chair for a world-renowned ethicist. That person will be at the academy next January and will add significant scholarly expertise to our effort.

We have also revamped our leadership curriculum. When I arrived, I saw indications that we had drifted from the fundamentals of leadership necessary for effectiveness in the fleet. Instead of learning how to be effective leaders, to gain respect and to command, I saw a focus on areas that confused midshipmen and had little relevance to the junior officers we were trying to develop.

I also saw the Naval Academy becoming more like civilian institutions, with midshipmen having more freedom and less discipline and structure than I felt was appropriate for a military school. I reduced the time that upperclass midshipmen had away from the academy and set higher standards of professional performance and accountability. I explained to the brigade that upperclassmen are expected to demonstrate leadership by their presence and example. Midshipmen cannot set a good example when they are not there.

Positive feedback

Feedback from these initiatives and others has been overwhelmingly positive. Most midshipmen say this is the structured and disciplined environment they expected when they came here.

The recent misconduct cases at the academy, of course, have raised legitimate concerns, including suggestions that such cases reflect a systemic problem at the school. I strongly disagree. While these untoward incidents are serious, they are aberrations. When we hold ourselves to high standards, we will unfortunately have breaches of honor and integrity. Small numbers have always occurred at the academy, and I can say with certainty that they will occur again. This is a reality that cannot be controlled. To think otherwise is folly.

After returning as superintendent to the academy two years ago, I noted other problems. Our standards were not always consistently enforced, and too many midshipmen appeared to tolerate wrongdoing by others. Many cases of blatant misconduct resulted in punishment inappropriate to the offense. Dual standards existed for the upper and lower classes. Repeated examples of this nature send the wrong signal to the rest of the brigade.

Turning a blind eye to obvious problems is an easy solution because it doesn't generate publicity. But it is never the right solution. The correct response to a problem is to look at it straight in the eye, take it seriously, deem it wrong and then deal with it fairly and equitably. I will insist that we continue to do the right thing in addressing cases of misconduct and honor, regardless of the repercussions they may have in the media or elsewhere. As the nation's premier ''leadership laboratory,'' we must be at the forefront of leadership by example and uncompromising high standards.

Character development and leadership training are parts of our intensive, four-year total immersion process, creating an environment that clearly sets the Naval Academy apart. My vision includes continuing to refine these programs and to make them even stronger. Given continuing support, these initiatives and others hold the promise of a Naval Academy of the 21st century that will continue to earn the respect and admiration of all Americans and provide them what they expect -- the highest-quality leaders for our naval service and our nation.

Adm. Charles R. Larson is superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.

Pub Date: 7/18/96

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