Academy panel studies history for answers Wide review of school is what Larson feared when board formed

April 14, 1997|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

A special panel investigating life at the U.S. Naval Academy after years of episodic embarrassment is looking back as far as the 1989 case of a female midshipman handcuffed by male classmates to a urinal in a search for one root flaw at the elite officer-training school.

Such a broad review of the academy's recent history is just what Adm. Charles R. Larson, the four-star superintendent, feared when the Board of Visitors created the panel last fall.

The approach has essentially split the board between Larson's supporters and others loyal to retired Adm. Stansfield Turner, an esteemed intellectual with a reputation as a military maverick.

"We are not here to tinker, to ask about the courses they've put in place in the last year," said Turner, the panel's co-chairman with Goucher College President Judy Jolley Mohraz. "We are trying to determine if there are systemic problems at the academy."

The board meets at the Pentagon today to begin answering two key questions: Is the academy broken? If so, how sweeping should its recommendations be to fix it?

The answers will guide the 20-member panel through June, when it delivers its prescription to the Board of Visitors and to Larson, who is warily monitoring the panel's work under Turner's direction.

Since January, when a concerned Board of Visitors named the panel, Navy and academy leaders have looked on Turner and the board as potential trouble. Today's meeting will be the first time members, who have been working in four subcommittees, get a chance to gauge their colleagues' zeal for reform and to measure Turner's agenda.

"Their frame of reference is very, very broad," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who sits on the Board of Visitors. "But I don't think when this is over they are going to stand up and name-call."

Academy leaders aren't so sure. And a fight is looming among members -- each loyal to a four-star admiral -- over control of the panel's agenda.

Turner gained a reputation as a liberal reformer while running President Jimmy Carter's CIA and the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. His supporters, who include several panel staff members, use words such as "brilliant" and "visionary" to describe him.

The other faction comprises Larson's watchdogs -- his proxies on a board many Navy leaders see as a dredge digging up eight years of traumatic scandals. They view Turner with trepidation and some disdain.

At Turner's direction, the panel is looking back as far as the 1989 incident involving Gwen M. Dreyer, a midshipman handcuffed to an academy urinal and photographed by male midshipmen after a snowball fight.

They are searching for a common thread -- in the curriculum, leadership and admissions policy -- to link the Dreyer case to the cheating scandal, the car-theft ring, drug arrests and other problems that have arisen since then.

"We are certainly going to look at that issue," said Turner, a 1944 academy graduate. "The world is a lot different than it was in the late '40s. It's a societal problem now as much as anything."

Larson, who left retirement to become superintendent, worried from the start that the panel would not simply focus on the changes he has made since 1994. He reluctantly asked the board in January for a "sanity check," not an autopsy of embarrassing recent history.

In 1993, a commission headed by Richard L. Armitage, a former assistant secretary of defense, reviewed school policy for seven months after a test cheating scandal involving more than 100 midshipmen. Larson made changes suggested by that review, which was especially critical of the academy's honor code enforcement.

He created the academy's first ethics chair, implemented a pervasive ethics curriculum and character development seminars, lobbied for more experienced Navy officers to teach at the academy, strengthened the honor concept and took other steps to restore faith in the school inside and outside the Yard -- the Naval Academy campus. Also, Larson's commanding presence and vaunted career has created a kind of cult of personality around him among midshipmen.

But Larson, who asked the Board of Visitors to give his solutions time, may be getting what he feared. The review panel is studying everything from admissions policy to the physical plant. The "character development" subcommittee, for example, is reviewing minority recruitment, the treatment of women at the academy and Larson's changes to the ethics curriculum and honor concept.

One case being reviewed involves Jennifer N. Della Barba, a former midshipman whom Larson expelled after he ruled she lied to the academy's student-run honor committee. The expulsion was overruled by Navy Secretary John H. Dalton, and Della Barba graduated from the academy. That case has been viewed an insult to Larson and the strict regimen he has tried to instill.

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