Calmly charting a steady course

Profile: Superintendent Ryan guides the Naval Academy away from scandal, with a focus on school renovation and maintenance.

September 07, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

In the year since Vice Adm. John R. Ryan became the 56th superintendent of the Naval Academy, the most surprising thing that's happened is that nothing surprising has happened.

At a school whose name had become linked with the word "scandal" -- baggage from the cheating, drug sales and car thefts of years past -- what folks at the academy wanted most in a leader was stability, someone whose decisions and persona would attract little attention.

"I think the academy needed a calming period," said former U.S. Rep. Beverly B. Byron, who is chairwoman of the academy's board of visitors and has served with five superintendents. "And he leads in a quiet manner."

A quarter of the way into his tenure, Ryan has kept the school out of the spotlight for its longest stretch in a decade. Because of that, he has been able to focus on restructuring and remodeling.

Appalled upon arrival that the library was closed on Friday nights and that students were leaving town, he cut back on the midshipmen's weekends off and opened the library until 10 p.m. on Fridays. "I'm a traditionalist," he said.

He has promised severe treatment for students caught having sex at the academy or using drugs, and has expelled 69 midshipmen, including two upperclassmen caught in improper relationships with freshmen.

He is also quietly funneling millions of dollars -- including, for the first time, a concerted effort to supplement Pentagon funding with private and corporate dollars -- into long-overdue maintenance and construction projects, which could guarantee him a legacy at his alma mater.

Ryan, 54, speaks with the subtle, unhurried twang of his rural Pennsylvania town of Mountainhome. Colleagues say he manages subordinates the same way: He's not loud or easily rattled, but is consistent and deliberate.

Behind the laid-back exterior is a dry, self-deprecating wit that can be lost on those who don't listen closely. At his swearing-in ceremony last summer, his first public words at the academy commented on all the praise for outgoing Superintendent Adm. Charles R. Larson: "I feel like the deceased at an Irish wake. My presence is required for the party to take place, but very little is expected of me."

Born and raised with four siblings in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, Ryan and his identical twin, Norbert, were basketball standouts who chose to attend the Naval Academy, where they confused and amused classmates by passing themselves off as each other. They are well-known in the Navy as the only identical twin admirals; Norbert is set to become chief of naval personnel, one of the Navy's top jobs.

"So, we're 54 years old and still dressing alike," Ryan said. "My mother jokes about it all the time."

Ryan and his wife, Diane Ryan, have three grown daughters.

Ryan is lanky, smiles often and reads voraciously, mostly business, management and self-improvement books. He sleeps five hours a night and is usually up before dawn, jogging with Maggie, the mutt he found in a garbage dump in Italy and named after former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

"I run five miles a day," he said. "It's a sickness, probably."

During a recent 6 a.m. jog around the academy, with 1,100 freshmen trotting behind him, Ryan explained that he is trying to run the academy as a business. He had just returned from a seminar at Harvard University for college presidents. He traveled the country this summer meeting alumni groups to inspire them to help raise money for the academy. And his recent reading list includes "Management Challenges for the 21st Century," by Peter Drucker.

"During the '80s and '90s, the military has learned a lot from business, not about leadership but about management," Ryan said. "Peter Drucker is one of my heroes."

One Drucker principle is predicting change. "One cannot manage change. One can only be ahead of it," says Drucker in his book. And from Day One, that's how Ryan has tried to improve the academy. He relies heavily on data and "outcome assessments" done by a research department that has expanded under his leadership.

"I usually ask the same question of everybody: What can I do to help you do your job better?" he said.

Ryan sits behind a huge oak desk that belonged to the academy's first superintendent, George Bancroft, in 1845. Beside him, a computer is tuned constantly to CNN Online. But Ryan prefers to spend most of his day far from his desk. He pops in on classrooms, glee club sessions and football practice.

Ryan's imprint on the academy could likely result from a Drucker-esque project called the "Strategic Plan" -- 28 "strategic initiatives" that, with the help of IBM/Blackwell Consulting Services, will chart a 10-year course for renovated classrooms, a new soccer field and tennis center, new yachts, an expanded sailing center, upgraded computer systems and dozens of classroom programs.

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